Police victimise innocent Muslims

Human rights activists say hundreds of people across India are falsely implicated in terrorism cases and brutally tortured for confessions.

Aftab Alam Ansari and his mother Ayesha Bibi. Cooped up inside a 7 feet x 10 feet room in a Calcutta slum Aftab lives with seven other members of his family, including his wife and five siblings. From Calcutta in 2007 Aftab was picked up by police as a suspected terrorist responsible for a bomb blast in north India. Aftab was tortured badly in custody by police in north Indian city of Lucknow for 3 weeks, before being acquitted by the court.
Pics by: Shaikh Azizur Rahman   *** Local Caption ***  Framed Terrorist A.jpg
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KOLKATA // While rummaging for coins and metals in the river Hooghly in August, a group of Muslim street children from a Kolkata slum found a cylindrical object and brought it home. As they were trying to strip out some metals, with a plan to sell them to a local scrap shop, it exploded, killing three of the children as well as an elderly man.

An investigation by army and police experts ruled out any terrorist link to the incident, and it was determined that the metallic object was an unexploded shell dumped in the river by a local ordnance factory. Two days after the investigation's findings were made public, Milan Mollah, a lorry cleaner who occasionally dealt in scrap metal, was picked up by local police on the charge of being "indirectly responsible" for the explosion and killing the people, who were all his relatives.

Police threatened to charge the 27-year-old illiterate Muslim as a terrorist linked to Bangladesh's Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami (Huji), if he did not pay a bribe of 150,000 Indian rupees (Dh11,580). Mr Mollah's mother borrowed money from relatives and paid 35,000 rupees - the first instalment of the bribe - in a desperate attempt to save her son from being charged as a "terrorist", tortured and sent to jail for years.

Mr Mollah's case was exposed in September in The Telegraph, a Kolkata newspaper, following which police investigated and suspended the officer who accepted the bribe. The officer is preparing to go to court to challenge the suspension. "The police are so powerful - we poor Muslims cannot fight against them," Ayub Ali Said, Mr Mollah's father-in-law, said yesterday. "Milan is planning to flee the area. Otherwise, in revenge, the police could implicate him in other false cases," he said, adding that his son-in-law was terrified.

Human rights activists said throughout India there were hundreds of such cases of harassment and torture of innocent Muslims by police, most of whom were biased against the community. In December, Aftab Alam Ansari, a Muslim youth from a neighbouring slum, was taken from Kolkata by a Special Task Force (STF) from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, in a joint operation with local police. The STF had told a Kolkata court he was originally a Bangladeshi named Mukhtar and was a Huji terrorist, a "mastermind" behind at least nine serial blasts in Uttar Pradesh in 2007.

Uttar Pradesh police also alleged that "terrorist Mukhtar" had 60 million rupees in his bank account, owned large houses in the West Bengal cities of Howrah and Malda, supplied explosives for the Uttar Pradesh blasts and that 1.5kg RDX had been recovered from his Kolkata house. Mr Ansari told the police he was not called Mukhtar and had no connection with any terrorist activity and was a Kolkata Electric Supply Corporation employee. But the police did not listen.

In custody in Lucknow, the capital of Utter Pradesh, for 17 days, he said, they tortured him, demanding a confession that he had a key role in the Uttar Pradesh blasts. "Inside a windowless room, they stripped me to my briefs, tied my hands and legs, and made me lie on a bench face down," he said, while sitting in his one-room shack in Kolkata's Cossipore slum that he now shares with his mother, grandmother and five siblings.

"They beat me on my back and bastinadoed my feet with a baton. I said I was an ordinary labourer? and was in no way involved in any terrorist activity. But they did not believe me. "One officer shouted, 'all terrorists say they are innocent, but we know how to make them confess' and began whipping me harder. I could not stand on my feet and crawled around crying in pain? They used unthinkably vulgar language against me and the Muslim community, and kicked my face."

Mr Ansari believes he managed to come out of "hell" alive because of the intervention of the local court, which reprimanded the police officer for harassing an innocent man. "The police never bothered to check [Mr Ansari's] identity properly and went on to torture him," said Aanchal Khurana, an activist who works for Combat Law, a human rights journal published in New Delhi. "Had his mother and some human rights activists not moved the court then, he would have faced further torture, sent to prison and would not have been set free."

Some police officers blame the slowness of the criminal justice system in India. "Cases carry on for a very long time. So there's pressure on the police that you take justice in your hands and deal with it quickly," said Shankar Sen, former director of India's National Police Academy. Rights activists, however, said religious discrimination is behind the brutality. "Since they were Muslims, Milan and Aftab were targeted by police that way. In fact, there are tens of thousands of instances of communal bias by the police, who often consider Muslims nothing beyond criminals or terrorists," said Sujato Bhadra, executive member of the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights.

"In the Hindu-majority country, pro-Hindu parties strive to keep the country polarised along communal lines, for electoral gain. These parties use police in their interest and in the process the behaviour by the police force, which is naturally Hindu-heavy in India, has turned communal." In August, at a seminar on the torture of minorities, in the southern city of Hyderabad, scores of such fabricated terrorism cases against Muslims were presented by human-rights activists. "[In the course of investigating many cases] I discovered to my horror that the charges against these innocent Muslim youth were based only on confessions before the police, and we all know how these confessions are made," said Ajit Sahi, who recently wrote a series of articles on Muslims who were framed as terrorists, in the investigative weekly Tehelka.

"There is routine torture of the most barbaric kind, forcing the detainees to admit to the false accusations against them," he said. "Things have become so bad now that even hope from the courts seems unlikely. Many judges are extremely communal and heavily prejudiced against Muslims." * The National