New Delhi: Fifty-four-year old Zakir Hussain’s life suddenly turned upside down when he learnt that his son Salim had been abducted by masked assailants from his residence in Abu Dhabi four years ago, on July 21, 2019. The next six months marked the beginning of the most testing pursuit of Hussain’s life.
Fast forward four years, all he knows is that Salim is in a UAE prison. What are the accusations? He doesn’t know.
For over three decades, Hussain has worked as a driver at the office of the British High Commissioner in New Delhi. He told The Wire that when he moved to Delhi from Hyderabad, the sole aim of his life was to toil hard enough to provide the best education to his children. He believed that education is the only way out for his children to lead a happy life in this country. And against all odds, he succeeded.
Hussain’s three children, two boys and a girl, pursued higher education and got placed in reputed companies. His elder son works in the marketing sector and his daughter has just completed her master’s in psychology and got placed in an international school. His youngest son, Salim, pursued a career in computer engineering and got placed in Qualcomm in 2015. Hussain recounted it as one of the happiest days of his life.
Then he elucidated Salim’s academic achievements in great detail. “Salim was a school topper and pursued his degree in computer science engineering from VVIT, Hyderabad,” he said with a sense of great pride and with a special emphasis on the name of the institute.
“In 2017, he received two lucrative placement offers, one in Bengaluru and one in Abu Dhabi. Salim asked my opinion on which offer to accept,” he continued. Hussain suggested Salim to go for the latter to get international exposure and a respite from the growing communal politics in the state.
Hussain, whose whole life has revolved around embassies and diplomats, knew that the UAE and India have a great friendship and he saw no harm in sending his son to Abu Dhabi. Moreover, Abu Dhabi is just four hours away via flight. Now, he laments that had he asked Salim to take up the Bengaluru job offer, he would be with him today.
“For two years, Salim’s stay in the UAE was quite peaceful but weeks before his arrest, he had suddenly become tense and told me that there is something suspicious going on in his company and that he wants to leave soon,” said Hussain, recalling this conversation which happened two months before Salim’s disappearance in 2019.
They talked over the phone at length almost everyday. Now he’s allowed to talk over the phone twice a week for a few minutes but they can only speak in English. The call is monitored and they cannot speak much. His last call with Salim was on Eid when he uttered the words “Eid Mubarak” and the call was disconnected in a minute.
Hussain immediately shifted the topic to Salim’s career plans again. Salim wanted to pursue a master’s degree in the US and he also received an offer letter from a renowned university. Soon after, he shifted to a different cyber security firm, right before his disappearance.
Hussain kept pleading to the authorities for any tip about Salim’s whereabouts. He flew to Abu Dhabi to meet the Indian embassy officials, who, he said, were considerate but of no help. In an interview to the National, a UAE-based news platform, former ambassador Navdeep Suri had in 2019 acknowledged meeting Zakir Hussain in person and being aware of the case.
“A representative from the embassy accompanied Mr Hussain to Khalidiya police station in Abu Dhabi…The father filed a missing persons case,” he said. When The Wire reached out to former ambassador Suri, who retired four years ago, he said that there were quite a few such cases and he cannot recall individual ones at the moment.
In its submission to the high court, the Union government said that it has tried to help the family through various diplomatic channels and that the matter was raised at the level of the ambassador with the UAE government. The government shared a summary of 25 note verbales (a diplomatic communication from one government to another) that were issued in the case.
The first one was issued four days after Salim’s disappearance in which the government had asked the UAE authorities to investigate the case of abduction. The government made these requests seven times until six months passed. On January 21, 2020, the government sought consular access for the first time as the ambassador was informed that Salim had been detained for an investigation connected to some national security issue. However, until now the government hasn’t received even a copy of the judgment.
Despite the intervention of the Indian government, it was only after six months that Hussain was informed that Salim had been arrested by the UAE authorities.
Reasons for the arrest
For the next three years, he set out to find answers to another question: What are the charges against his son? He is still finding answers. Sometimes, he writes to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and sometimes, he visits the ambassador’s office. But now, he is only hopeful about the judiciary’s intervention, which is perhaps his last resort.
The Wire sought the help of Anjolie Singh, an expert in international law, to disentangle the intricacies of what appears to be an extraordinary case of failure of diplomatic protection. Even for Anjolie, this is the most bizarre case that she has come across in the span of her 20-year legal career.
“Here’s a distraught father running from pillar to post in the MEA and all he’s asking for is the set of charges under which his son has been convicted. And as per the government’s own admission, it has failed to do so,” she said.
What’s even more shocking, she pointed out, is the fact that even the government claims to not have any information about the case. Anjolie finds it hard to believe that three years after they claim the issue was raised with the UAE, the MEA is yet to get a copy of the judgment detailing the charges for which the person has been incarcerated, including any clarity on the details of the number of years for which he has been sentenced.
Anjolie explained that the Indian Mission’s lack of information about the case despite “constantly [being] in touch” and “continuously seeking information” from the UAE authorities is a comment on the sorry state of diplomatic protection to Indian nationals abroad. She also questioned the government’s heavy reliance on informal communication channels to retrieve information for such a long duration despite the existence of an agreement on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons between India and the UAE.
Shahrukh Alam, counsel for the petitioner, has informed the high court that while the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) may not be applicable, there are other treaties which could be used to help the case of the petitioner’s son. The petition notes that the lack of any information about the reasons for the arrest and conviction of Hussain’s son is a violation of principles of natural justice and it obstructs him from accessing the legal resources available to him.
Considering the nature of the matter, the Delhi high court requested a senior official from the MEA or the Indian embassy in the UAE to join the proceedings virtually in order to inform the court what steps have been taken to assist the petitioner.
Hussain has met several officials at the MEA for assistance. “I even met Dr. Jaishankar while he had come to visit the office of the British High Commissioner.” It was not a formal meeting, he clarified, however, he was assured that the government is looking into the matter.
Hussain’s version and the government’s submission before the court show that the response of the Indian government has been ineffective rather than indifferent. Anjolie remarked that a “Vishwaguru” and a “would-be superpower” should at least provide basic consular assistance to its nationals.
“It is unclear if this stems from the MEA’s inability to procure this information or its unwillingness to provide any information to the family of the prisoner,” she added.
“I had sent my son to Abu Dhabi considering India and UAE’s relationship. I am afraid that my child may be sacrificed to uphold this friendship. I hope that is not the case,” said Hussain.
He also shared a teary-eyed video of his wife folding Salim’s clothes. Over the course of these four years, his wife has been very disturbed ever since Salim has been away.
Those who have followed Hussain’s journey have seen him turn from a lively old man about to retire happily with his family into a distraught father holding on to the hope of reuniting with his son one day.
Another similar case of Indian Navy veterans in Qatar
There’s another similar case where eight veterans of the Indian Navy, kept in solitary confinement in Qatar since August 2022, face death sentence. In this case, too, the charges have not been shared with India.
MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had told ANI on April 20, “As far as I am aware, the charges [in the Qatar case] have not been shared or conveyed so far.”
The Indian Navy veterans were detained in Doha last year on the charges of spying for Israel on the country’s advanced submarines.
“This is now in the legal process. Let me emphasise that we are making all efforts to assist these Indians who were detained and we are also extending consular assistance as well as legal assistance as part of the legal process that is underway,” Bagchi had said.
Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge, in a tweet, on April 26, voiced concerns on this matter, highlighting that the MEA says that “the charges have not been shared so far” with India.
8 veterans of the Indian Navy, kept in solitary confinement in Qatar since August 2022, face death sentence.
MEA says that “the charges have not been shared so far”, with India.
Modi Govt’s meek surrender has exposed their tall claims of making India a “Vishwaguru”!
— Mallikarjun Kharge (@kharge) April 26, 2023
The court is scheduled to hear this matter on May 3.