'We are defenders of the innocent'

In 2007, late advocate Shahid Azmi, who was the defence lawyer for the accused in the 7/11 serial blasts case, the 2006 Malegaon blasts case and the Aurangabad Arms haul case, had approached the President of the Jamiat Ulema e-Hind Maulana Sayyed Arshad Madani, based in New Delhi, for legal aid.

Azmi had drafted a petition that challenged the application of the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) in the three cases and wanted to pursue the matter in the Supreme Court. Maulana Madani was convinced that there was a larger good in pursuing the petition, and he recommended that the Jamiat Ulema e Maharashtra, based in Imamwada in South Mumbai offer financial aid in the matter.

From there on, it has been defending every accused person in such cases. The Jamiat has been offering legal aid to people accused in cases such as the 26/11 terror attack, the 13/7 triple blasts and people alleged to be members of the Indian Mujahideen, to name a few. The organisation is currently handling 33 cases across the country in various courts, including sessions, High Courts and the Supreme Court.

Fight for justice
Gulzar Azmi, secretary, legal cell, Jamiat Ulema e Maharashtra says, “Ours is an organisation that has been fighting for freedom and justice since 1919. We were the first organisation that mobilised the freedom struggle and took up the fight against the British. We are defenders of the innocent and the oppressed, and have been offering legal aid in such cases since 1947.”

Azmi adds that the Jamiat had openly opposed the Muslim League and the concept of partition. “Post partition, there were riots across the country, and it was during these turbulent times that the Jamiat came forward and helped people with relief funds. During that era, many innocent people were arrested on charges of rioting and arson. The Jamiat offered them legal aid and defended them in the court of law. So this is not really a new concept for us.”

Defending the innocent
However, with such heinous charges of terrorism and atrocities levied against so many accused, how does the Jamiat decide who it will defend?

There is a process behind taking up such cases, informs Azmi. “We receive a request from the kin of the accused who want us to aid them with legal fees.

After that we ask our panel of lawyers to check the case papers and charges and also conduct a background check on the accused. It is only when we are satisfied that the accused is innocent and does not have any criminal background that we accept the case. We do not defend gangsters and criminals,” he stresses.

There is ample evidence to prove that statement. Two accused, Fahim Ansari and Sabahuddin, were acquitted of charges in the 26/11 terror trial. The Jamiat defended the two in the trial court and later in the High Court that upheld their acquittal.

Nine accused in the Malegaon blast case (2006) were granted bail after it emerged that another group had committed the crime which was evident from the confession of Swami Aseemanand. “These innocent people had to spend over five years in jail for a crime they never committed,” adds Azmi.

It is instances such as these that back the organisation’s conviction that the people accused of such crimes are innocent and need to be helped in the fight for justice. “It’s not just about defending Muslims. We were approached by the family of a Hindu man who was given the death sentence by the trial court in a twin murder case. Our lawyers took up the case in the High Court and he was acquitted of the charges as evidence against him was only circumstantial,” says Azmi.

Donations for a cause
On an average, the Jamiat spends nearly Rs 60 lakh annually on legal fees. Besides legal aid, the organisation also offers education aid, medical aid and relief funds. So where does the money come from?

“Giving zakaat (alms) is one of the pillars of Islam. And our organisation depends entirely on the donations in the form of zakaat that we utilise for various aids and relief funds,” says Azmi.

“We offer educational aid to students across religions. Any student who applies to us for educational aid is granted funds accordingly,” he concludes.

The big cases
26/11 terror trial, 7/11 train blasts case, Malegaon blasts case (2006), Aurangabad Arms haul case, Mulund blast case, Gateway blasts case, 13/7 Mumbai blasts case, 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)

Early beginning
Jamiat Ulema was founded in Amritsar in 1919 with the objective to fight for freedom from the atrocities of the British. In 1920, Maulana Mehmood ul Hasan Deobandi and Shaikhul Islam Maulana Hussain Ahmed Madani called for a meeting at Khilafat House to launch a nationwide freedom struggle against the British. Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Shaukat Ali were also part of this meeting. It was here that a decision was taken to organise an all-India freedom struggle headed by Mahatma Gandhi and aided by Khilafat House and Jamiat workers

The beneficiaries of the Jamiat
> “Had it not been for the Jamiat’s help, I don’t know what I would have done. They arranged for lawyers for my sons at a time when even my family and close relatives had shied away,” said 64 year-old Ata ur Rehman Shaikh, whose two sons are facing trial in the 7/11 blasts case and the Aurangabad arms haul case in Mumbai.

>Yasmin Shaikh, whose husband has been in jail for the past six years, was all praise for the Jamiat’s efforts. “I manage to make ends meet and put my children through school, but it was impossible for me to pay the legal fees for lawyers in this case. I can only offer blessings to the Jamiat for their effort.”

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