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127 Indian Muslims charged with ‘terror’ acquitted after 19 years

Mohammad Abdul Hai was one of the 127 Muslims arrested in 2001 [Bilal Kuchay/Al Jazeera]

127 Indian Muslims charged with ‘terror’ acquitted after 19 years

New Delhi, India – On the night of December 26, 2001, Mohammad Abdul Hai boarded a train from Jodhpur in northwestern India’s Rajasthan state to Surat city in neighbouring Gujarat to attend a three-day seminar on Muslim education.

The seminar was organised by the All India Minority Education Board, of which Hai – then an professor at Jodhpur’s Jai Narain Vyas University – was a member.

The equestrian sport was expected to be attended by nearly 400 Muslim scholars, activists and community leaders from across India.

Hai was excited about the seminar. But little did he know that the event was getting to change his life forever and shortly he wouldn’t only be called a “terrorist” and “anti-national” but will need to spend subsequent 14 months in jail.

The next day at approximately 11pm, police received Rajeshree Hall, a closed film theatre in Surat, where Hai and 120 others attending the seminar were staying.

Police arrested all of them under various sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), a stringent anti-terror law, and charged them with being members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and for organising the meeting to “promote and expand” SIMI’s activities.

A total of 127 people, all Muslims, were arrested.

More than 19 years after they were booked, a court in Surat on Sunday acquitted all of the accused within the case. Five of them died during the long trial.

Indian authorities accused SIMI of completing several bombings and of getting links with armed groups based in Pakistan. many its alleged members are arrested, but the group says it merely propagates an “Islamic way of life” for India’s Muslims.

The Indian government banned SIMI in 2001 within the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks within the us .

An ordeal of nearly 20 years
The Surat court, in its March 6 order, said the prosecution had did not produce “cogent, reliable and satisfactory” evidence to determine the accused belonged to SIMI or had gathered to market the group’s activities. The court ruled they can’t be held guilty under UAPA.

“This case caused numerous problems for us and our families. a number of the victims lost their government jobs, some couldn’t get work for years,” Hai told Al Jazeera over the phonephone .

After spending 14 months in jail, Hai was granted bail by India’s Supreme Court in 2002. But that wasn’t the top of his ordeal.

Every week for several years, Hai, now 66, would travel quite 700km (430 miles) from his range in Jodhpur to present himself before the police in Surat. Twice a month, he made an equivalent journey to seem before a judicial magistrate within the Gujarat city.

Meanwhile, three months after getting bail, he was reinstated at his university but was denied any promotion thanks to the case.

“I was working as an professor on December 27, 2001, and that i retired at an equivalent position in June 2015. I couldn’t get one promotion of these years and lost numerous monetary benefits a government employee gets, including gratuity at the time of retirement,” he said.

Asif Iqbal, 53, was working as a primary healthcare worker with the Surat Municipal Corporation when he was arrested within the same case.

Not only did he spend four months in jail, but he was also suspended from his job and eventually terminated in 2018.

“I kept telling the officials the case remains pending within the court and that i haven’t been declared guilty, so let me keep my job but they didn’t listen and terminated me,” he told Al Jazeera over the phonephone from Surat.

Iqbal was alleged to retire in 2027.

“This case ruined my life. For a decade and a half, I wasn’t paid the complete salary,” he said, adding that he “feels guilty” that his 75-year-old father still drives an auto-rickshaw to assist his family meet the ends.

Now that the court has acquitted him of all charges, Iqbal demands that he be reinstated and compensated for the loss.
Asif Sheikh, now 51, was arrested while pursuing a course in mass communication and journalism at Gujarat University.
Despite being a top student at university, Sheikh said he wasn’t ready to pursue a career in journalism, a profession he was hooked in to .

“I was labelled a SIMI member. due to this label, no organisation would give me employment ,” he told Al Jazeera. “Our houses were raided as if we were dreaded terrorists.”

Sheikh said he took a contractual job with a government institute after his bail but was forced to resign after they came to understand about his case.

“I wanted to be a journalist but now i’m selling spices.”

‘Significant bias against Muslims’
In the past few decades, many Indian Muslims are booked in bogus terror-related cases, most of them leading to an acquittal of the accused, but not before victims had either spent years in jail or facing court trials – sometimes, decades.

A 2018 study by non-profit Common Cause and Lokniti, a search initiative by the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), found that a way of being discriminated against by police in India is that the strongest among Muslims.

The study said quite 47 percent of Indian Muslims feared being falsely accused of terrorist activities.

Another report by Lokniti in 2019, titled Status of Policing in India: Police Adequacy and dealing Conditions, found that police in India display “significant bias against Muslims”, with half the police personnel saying Muslims are “naturally prone towards committing crimes”.

In 2016, Innocence Network, a rights group that campaigns for those wrongfully prosecuted, released its report, calling on the govt to pay compensation to them. The group also demanded that Indian officials behind wrongful arrests and prosecutions should be held accountable.

“The fact is there’s no compensation for people held for therefore long. the very fact that there’s no prosecution of policemen who plant, forge or manufacture evidence to stay these people under trials for therefore long in itself indicates the judiciary isn’t working,” Ravi Nair, executive of South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, told Al Jazeera.

Nair said the immunity enjoyed by the police and other officialdom who engage in human rights violations “must be, first of all, withdrawn or repealed”.

“Only then are you able to have a correct judiciary functioning during this country.”

But Asif Sheikh told Al Jazeera he doesn’t expect any compensation from the govt . Instead, his appeal to Indian Muslims is “to work for the welfare of the community”.

Sheikh said the rationale people from his community are booked in “fake and bogus” cases is to make fear among the Muslims.

“If a gaggle of individuals who want to speak about education of Muslims or their constitutional rights are booked during a bogus case which drags for 20 years, what does that mean? It creates fear,” he said.

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“Why isn’t anybody talking for the Muslim community today? Because there’s fear. This fear has been created by such cases.”

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