Innocence Network Calls for Revamp of Anti-Terror Laws

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Wahid Sheikh

Annual Conference highlight violations and abuses in terror investigations

Clarion India

NEW DELHI – Innocence Network India held its Second Annual Conference to mark 15 years of arrests in the Mumbai 7/11 case on Sunday.

The programme also included the inauguration of the English translation of Abdul Wahid Sheikh’s book, “Innocent Prisoner”(Begunah Qaidi). Sheikh is the lone individual to have been acquitted in the case after spending nine years in prison. Since his acquittal, he has spent six years advocating and spreading awareness about those who have been falsely implicated in the terror case.

The online conference was also addressed by Manisha Sethi (Professor, NALSAR), noted academic Professor Veena Das, who joined from the US and legal scholar Usha Ramanathan.

After completing his legal education, Sheikh has campaigned for Muslim youth across the country who are discriminated and wrongfully prosecuted under anti-terror laws in India. In the conference, Wahid stated that even though sometimes he feels tired of speaking about his book and his experience, he has a mission for all those who are innocent to be released. So no matter how tired he is, he will keep raising his voice.

He wrote this book while he was incarcerated. it sheds light on the way the accused are tortured, and evidence is fabricated by the state. He stressed on the fact that in many of these cases,the hearing keeps being postponed unnecessarily. In the 7/11 case, they were boys, many of them were just got married, many with wives who were pregnant when they were arrested. Now their own kids have grown up and are ready to be married. They need to be released.

He further said that if people and the state target individuals on the basis of their religion, identity – there can be no peace. Severe punishments are given including death penalty and his appeal is that we do everything for this case -if we can write, protest, campaign- we must do whatever possible, it’s our collective responsibility, he said.

Sociologist and Professor Manisha Sethi stated that the crux of the 7/11 judgment is the confessions that were extracted through torture. The lives of people like Wahid are the living illustration of the consequences of UAPA, MCOCA and other anti-terror laws which have such devastating implications on the accused. It has been a week since activist Stan Swamy died in judicial custody, and it is important to state that accused no. 1 in this case, Kamal Ansari, died recently in jail. He had COVID and we don’t know what sort of healthcare he got, the family wasn’t informed…very opaque as the prison system works, said Sethi.

She stressed on the need to reflect on the collective idea of ‘political prisoner’- as people tend not to think of Wahid Sheikh or Kamal Ansari as a political prisoner. We think of political prisoners as dissenters who writes, protests, talks…but many of the people who have been arrested are supposedly linked with SIMI but a large proportion of people here were not linked with any political party. They were targeted because of their religion, age…put simply for being Muslims. We don’t see them as political prisoners but the UAPA and anti-terror laws are inherently political.

She further brought attention to the fact that in the earlier years it was Sikhs. In UAPA, the definition of “unlawful” is so vague. Anything innocuous could be deemed unlawful. Books, songs, meetings of any kind could be said to be unlawful associations and that is what happens. This is one stream–but UAPA was never meant to be a terror law. These laws led to people spending years in jail without any trial, including TADA and POTA. The conviction rate has been abysmally low. This has created the myth that “enemies of the state were out there” and these laws were needed.

She ends the conversation by stating that these laws and their extremely vague definitions have made it impossible for it to retain any idea of fair trial or justice or rule of law. Anti-terror laws allow the marking out of the enemies of the state through these bans, through labeling people as “terrorists”–the enemies of the state are both, political groups who are engaged in some work, but can also be socio regional groups, like Muslims today & the figure of the anti-CAA protesters.

Talking about the book, Anthropologist Veena Das highlighted how Wahid Sheikh’s book contributed to pedagogical theories of what the role and function of State is, what democracy is, and what constitutes torture.

In her words, the book most importantly, discusses the police procedures that not only target an individual who they are able to pin as “suspects” or “accused”, but also dwells with how it fractures entire communities through systematic targeting and harassment.

She cites a bombay blasts case booked under TADA, wherein despite acquittal, the time that they spent in custody, and the treatment that they faced erased the differences between those “accused” and those not. Not limiting the discourse of torture to something, which is committed by a public servant, Veena emphaizes the need to expand the definition of torture, by examining how torture is perpetrated in different constituencies and arenas of social life.

Activist Usha Ramanathan shared similar concerns as other two speakers, and spoke of the urgent need to restore liberty in today’s times. She spoke of how Father Stan’s death compelled everyone to think about the institutional biases prevalent across the country, and the severe limitations of the very application of anti-terror legislation that India has seen through POTA, TADA, and now with several amendments made to UAPA.

Usha also recounted the role played by police and State in 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Hashimpura massacre, Gujarat riots etc. In her speech, she further emphasized on how colonial laws such as sedition, anti-terror laws etc. are being used to subjugate Muslims, Adivasi communities, and dissenting individuals, who question the anti-people policies of the Government. At a time when we have a new definition of citizenship rooted in exclusion, and several detention centres having come up, thereby posing a life threat to different marginalized sections of society, she emphasized the need to speak up against it. She also stressed on the need for an anti-torture law to hold police accountable for the human rights violations meted to those in custody under anti-terror laws or otherwise.

 Several human rights activists, lawyers, academicians, and law students attended the programme. The conference was two hours long. The link to purchase Abdul Wahid Sheikh’s book in English can be found here: https://pharosmedia.com/books/

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