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In defense of Indians wrongly accused of terrorism

Sometimes, empathy, even justice, comes from unexpected quarters. Nestled in the narrow lanes of Imamwada is the operating office of the Jamiat e Ulema Maharashtra, which certainly qualifies as one such place of respite for the wrongly-accused Muslim youth in the country.

The 500 sq ft office can easily be mistaken for a religious school. But appearances can be deceptive. Amid the many mounds of petitions and chargesheets is the Jamiat’s legal cell that is currently defending more than 200 accused in over 33 terror trials across the country.

Gulzar Azmi
The General Secretary of the Jamiat e Ulema Maharashtra’s legal cell, Gulzar Azmi. Pic/Bipin Kokate

Jamiat e Ulema Maharashtra is an organisation that commenced to offer legal aid to Muslim youth whom the organisation believes to be innocent yet wrongly framed by the police in 2007. The General Secretary of the Jamiat e Ulema Maharashtra’s legal cell, Gulzar Azmi, tells us that their organisation does not defend criminals. Despite the gravity of the charges levied against the accused whom the Jamiat defends in the court of law, Azmi clarifies that these are innocent Muslims who have been framed by the police.

The police, he says, often picks up Muslim youth and books them under draconian laws such as TADA, POTA, MCOCA and UAPA. Thanks to these very laws, the police manages to keep the youth in custody for long durations without any material evidence. Azmi adds they are often tortured, coerced and made to confess crimes they did not commit.

Justice in sight
The 80-year-old tells us that there is a process to selecting such trials. “Our legal team checks the facts of the case before accepting the brief. Only when we are satisfied that the accused is innocent do we offer to provide legal aid,” says Azmi.

“The law of the land says that each accused person is considered innocent until proven guilty, but in the case of Muslims they are considered guilty until proven innocent,” Azmi adds.

Azmi’s colleague, Advocate Shahid Nadeem Ansari has also been associated with the Jamiat e Ulema Maharashtra for the last four years and regularly attends the trials in MCOCA courts since 2012. “Legal aid is the right of every accused, and it is also in the fairness of justice. Every person, no matter what crime he/she is accused of, has the right to be defended in a court of law. The Jamiat offers legal aid only to those accused who are innocent and not criminals,” says Ansari.

“The police investigates the case and makes arrests. However, it is the court that decides whether or not the accused is guilty of the crime based on the evidence that is produced. As per the law, an accused deserves a fair trial and the legal cell of the Jamiat assists in that process,” adds Ansari.

Advocate Ansar Tamboli, who has been working with the Jamiat since the last two years, says that the law of the land is very clear about legal aid. “If an accused cannot afford to hire an advocate to defend himself, the court offers the person with legal aid and a lawyer is appointed to represent the accused during the trial. So what is wrong if the Jamiat is offering legal aid to the accused,” asks Tamboli.

“The legal panel of the Jamiat cross checks the facts of the matter before accepting the case and appointing a lawyer for the accused. We have appointed lawyers for 20 accused in the Aurangabad Arms haul case but we refused to defend Zabiuddin Ansari alias Abu Jundal, as we were not satisfied with his background,” he adds.

The trials
Azmi is vocal about the injustice meted out to Muslim youth in recent times. He discusses the 2006 Malegaon blasts, to begin with. “The blasts that killed several innocent Muslims in Malegaon in 2006 were investigated by the Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS). Nine Muslims were arrested and charged for having committed the heinous crime. We defended these youth in the Sessions court and appealed to the higher court for a reinvestigation of the case. The case was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) but it did not offer any new inputs. Finally, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) investigated the case and arrested right-wing radicals for having planted the bombs and spreading terror in Malegaon. The nine men arrested by the ATS are innocent and have been framed.”

Another case in point, believes Azmi, is the Mumbai serial train blasts case. The ATS arrested and charged 13 accused for the crime. However, during the course of the trial, the Crime Branch arrested a member of the Indian Mujahideen who confessed to having conducted bomb blasts across the country since 2005. The accused also confessed to having executed the Mumbai train blasts. “How is it that two different sets of people are staking claim to the same terror blasts? This means only one thing that the investigating authorities have not discharged their duty properly,” says Azmi.

The president of the Jamiat e Ulema-Hind, Maulana Arshad Madni met the Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav seeking the release of several youth languishing in jail for years without trial. The UP government decided to withdraw the cases, however the Allahabad High Court has raised objections to the move. Advocate Nithya Ramakrishnan will represent the Jamiat in the High Court when the matter comes on board.

“Take the recent case of the Muslim youth arrested from parts of Bangalore, Hubli and Hyderabad last year. The Bangalore police claimed that these youngsters were planning a terror attack. However, when the case was transferred to the NIA, the boys were let off as there was no material evidence against them. One of the arrested youth was a journalist, while another was a scientist. Their careers have been destroyed.”

When the youth were arrested, the Jamiat sent a fact-finding team to Bangalore. The team discovered that no lawyer was willing to come forward and defend these accused. The legal fraternity had already brandished them as terrorists and refused to defend them in a court of law. However, the Jamiat did not give up hope, and a team of lawyers agreed to defend the accused. Months later the NIA discharged the youth for lack of evidence.

Equal rights for all
Advocate Sudeep Pasbola, president of Bombay City Civil and Sessions Court Bar Association, for instance, believes that every time a Muslim youth is arrested for a crime, the society finds itself staring at a schism. “Whenever such an incident happens and Muslim youth are arrested, organisations and NGOs come forward and collect funds from the community for their legal aid. There is no harm in that and it’s a social cause. What has to be seen is the nature of the accusations levelled against the accused. Usually society is divided into two opinions after an incident, with one side holding the accused guilty while the other sympathises with them and considers them innocent,” he says.

“It is a matter of right to be given legal aid. It is important to see the financial status of the accused, whether the person can afford to hire a lawyer. And if he receives legal aid there is no objection to that,” said senior Advocate Prakash Shetty.

“The public opinion may be prejudiced but the judiciary is free from it. As advocates, we are professionals and it is not for us to decide the guilt or the lack of it. Ultimately, the courts will decide the fate of the accused. As per the law, every accused person is innocent until proven guilty. And our judicial system is very fair. Every person has the right to be defended in a court of law. If that person gets legal aid that is keeping with the spirit of justice,” said Advocate Sharif Shaikh.

Rs 60 lakh
The Jamiat’s annual expenditure on legal aid and fees  

Funds for cases
The Jamiat runs solely on alms and donations. Muslims have a custom to offer Zakat every year, which is a specific percentage of their annual income. In addition to Zakat, donations through the year are the source of revenue for the Jamiat.

On an average the Jamiat spends nearly Rs 60 lakh on legal aid and fees annually. In addition to legal aid, the Jamiat also offers educational aid. “Any student who applies for aid to the Jamiat is helped accordingly,” said Azmi. This year they spent Rs 20 lakh on scholarships.

Legal hurdles
While arranging funds might seem a herculean task, finding a set of lawyers to defend such accused is an equally tall task.

“A few years ago, Advocate Shahid Azmi came to us with three cases where he believed the accused were innocent and were framed. When we took on these cases it was difficult to find the right lawyers to defend these accused in the court. Most lawyers would either flatly refuse or make excuses to avoid taking up the brief. However, Shahid, who was both intelligent and compassionate, took up all the cases that came to the Jamiat. It was his hardwork and dedication that changed the minds of other lawyers, and soon we were able to set up a panel of lawyers in over eight cities across the country,” said Azmi.

However, during the course of the 26/11 trial where the Jamiat was defending Fahim Ansari and Sabauddin, their lawyer Shahid Azmi was shot dead in his office at Kurla.

“Shahid was a great asset to the legal fraternity. His loss is irreplaceable,” laments Azmi.

The Jamiat has procured the services of lawyers like Shanti Bhushan, Trideep Pais, Prashant Bhushan, Nitya Ramakrishnan, Yug Chaudhary, Abdul Wahab Khan, Sharief Shaikh and MS Khan.

The Jamiat e Ulema Maharashtra, however, is not a posse to be intimidated by odds and critics. There’s a lot on fire -- friendships, reputations and, above all, lives -- but Ansari and his colleagues remain undeterred. “We have vowed to complete the trials that have been left incomplete as a fitting tribute to the sacrifice of Shahid,” he says solemnly.

Terror trails
Some of the cases where Jamiat e Ulema’s lawyers are involved include the 7/11 train blasts case, Malegaon blasts case (2006), Aurangabad Arms haul case, Mulund blast case, Gateway blasts case, 13/7 blasts case, 26/11 terror trial, Arthur Road jail assault case, Indian Mujahideen cases (Ahmedabad, Delhi, Mumbai), Akshardham attack case, Kolkata American Centre attack case, Haren Pandya murder trial, Qateel Siddiqui murder probe, Mozawalla case
(Official Secrets Act)

Did you know?
The Jamiat e Ulema was founded in Amritsar in 1919 with the objective to fight for freedom from the atrocities of the British. The Jamiat defended freedom fighters in terror trials in the British Court

Family speak
The toughest journey here, perhaps, is the one undertaken by the family of those accused in terror cases. The social stigma and sense of mistrust often leads to the kin being ostracised by society. Neighbours shy away, lawyers refuse to take their cases, and no one is willing to offer a helping hand. It is under these testing times that the Jamiat e Ulema offers a ray of hope.

>> Aziz Khan (33), brother of an accused in the 2006 Malegaon blasts case, says, “It was an extremely difficult time for our family when my brother was arrested. His name was flashed on TV and there was a sense of fear and horror that loomed in our neighbourhood. We had no support from anyone to defend my brother. I approached many eminent lawyers but none were willing to defend him, simply stating that it was a lost cause. It was only after I applied to the Jamiat that my brother could get a lawyer. Today, the NIA has reinvestigated the case and has not found any evidence against my brother.”

>> ”My brother was termed ‘Dr Terror’ by the media soon after his arrest. The officers kept harassing our family. The Jamiat gave us lawyers who took up the case in the High Court and Supreme Court. Today the truth is out in the trial court and that is all thanks to the Jamiat’s legal team,” said Ishtiyaq Ansari (42), brother of an accused in the Mumbai serial train blasts case.

>> “When my husband (Fahim) was booked in the 26/11 terror case, no lawyer was willing to defend him. ‘Forget about your husband’, said the advocates I approached. I was shattered. It was only when I approached the Jamiat that I saw a ray of hope. Their lawyers fought the case from the trial court all the way to the Supreme Court, and my husband was acquitted. I will forever be in gratitude of late advocate Shahid Azmi,” said Yasmin Ansari (36), wife of Fahim Ansari, acquitted in the 26/11-terror case. 

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