By Safeena Wani for Youth Ki Awaaz:
In 1996, the Delhi Police detained Latief Ahmad Waza, a carpet seller from Old Srinagar’s Khanqah Mohalla for his alleged involvement in a series of bomb blasts. Twenty years later, his family continues to publicly denounce the travesty of justice that derailed their life.
Two decades have passed, but the Waza family is still unable to make sense of the charges slapped on Latief. As per the family, Latief was selling carpets in Nepal on May 27, 1996, when Delhi Police showed up at his showroom in civil clothes and detained him. By the time news of his detention reached Srinagar, Latief had already been ‘framed’ in a series of bomb blasts that had occurred in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar and near Samleti village on the Jaipur-Agra highway, the family says.
On May 2, 1996, a bomb blast in Lajpat Nagar market had killed 13 people. The Lajpat Nagar blasts were followed by the Dausa blasts, where a bomb blast in a bus near Samleti village in Rajasthan had killed 14 people.
While the family says that Latief was arrested in Nepal, police have maintained that he was arrested at Gorakhpur border with nine others, including his brothers.
It took the judiciary 14 years to establish their innocence in the Lajpat Nagar bomb blast case. In 2010, when Latief, along with nine others was acquitted from the case, Judge S.P. Garg had reportedly told his brother Raja, “Whatever I did was at my own risk – otherwise this case has so much political pressures.”
Raja says he didn’t understand what the judge meant then, but when later Latief was indicted in the Jaipur bomb blasts, along with four others, he says he finally figured out the underlying meaning.
“I meet my brother in Jaipur every month,” says a visibly sad Raja. “The desert jail is very harsh. They only allow 15-minute meetings there. We are supposed to stand 8 feet away separated by an iron gate. The cops don’t let us talk in Kashmiri, but Hindi.”
Visiting Jaipur hasn’t been easy for the family since Latief’s father Ghulam Mohammad Wani passed away in 2006. “After rallying for his release for 10 years, my father’s health deteriorated to the point of no recovery,” says Raja. “After my father’s demise, I and my mother would frequent the prisons, but now, I don’t take her along keeping the harsh prison treatment in view.”
In 2014, Raja was called by his brother’s lawyer to Jaipur to take his brother home – a moment long awaited by the family. But the judgement left Raja heartbroken again. Barring one person, all others were denied freedom. “My brother like others is innocent. He was tortured to confess the crimes he never committed,” says Raja, welling up.
In all these years, Latief has been released for only three days on parole. This was in 2006, after his father passed away. Such is the travesty of justice in Latief’s case, Raja says, that the family had to hire six lawyers to prove their son’s innocence. To pay the legal fee, they had to sell their house besides spending all their savings.
Latief’s story is not an isolated one. Reports suggest that 70.1% of all those who are jailed in Indian prisons are undertrial prisoners and their alleged crime has still not been verified in a court of law. This alarming figure gives India the distinction of being one of the 10 worst countries in the world in terms of number of accused languishing in jails, according to an Amnesty International report.
Once released, securing compensation for the undertrials from the government is also very difficult, human rights activists and lawyers say.
Kashmir’s prominent human rights activist-lawyer, Parvez Imroz has been pleading cases of Kashmiri undertrials since the nineties now. The seasoned activist says that undertrials hardly get justice, leave aside compensation.
“Several Kashmiris prisoners languishing in different jails were declared innocent after 20 or 30 years,” Imroz said. “It shows us how the justice system works in India. Many Kashmiri detainees are being booked under draconian Public Safety Act without trial. And once they come out, they hardly get any compensation from the government.”
In a landmark judgement in 2014, the Supreme Court of India ordered releasing those prisoners who had spent half of the maximum sentence prescribed for the offences they were charged with.
“The judicial officers (magistrate/sessions judge/chief judicial magistrate) shall identify prisoners who have completed half of the maximum period of imprisonment provided for the offences they are charged with. After complying the procedure under Section 436A of Criminal Procedure Code, they shall pass appropriate order in jail itself for the release of such prisoners,” the bench headed by then Chief Justice R.M. Lodha had said.
The court was informed that there are about 3.81 lakh prisoners across India — out of which about 2.54 lakh, are undertrials. According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s prison data for 2015, over 55% of undertrials across India are either Muslims, Dalits or tribals — that together account for 39% of India’s population. The data also shows that most of the undertrials have to spend over three months in jail before they can secure bail — close to 65% spend anywhere from three months to five years.
In its earlier story, YKA had written that both investigating agency and particular officers within the agency are responsible for framing innocents. “…if you look at the pattern …, it is plain to anyone that agencies and officers indulge in this repeatedly for lack of fear and consequences. The fact that none of those involved in destroying lives has been punished for malicious prosecution is disturbing.”
NCRB data also shows that after Goa, Jammu and Kashmir is the worst performing state when it comes to undertrials languishing in jails, with over 75% of undertrials remaining in jail for over three months. Kerala and Tripura have the lowest percentage of such cases — 35% and 32% respectively.
“The criminal justice system is overloaded in India,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, head of India Human Rights Watch. “Many remain in prison as undertrials. Without access to legal counsel, these undertrials cannot apply for bail. Often, particularly in cases of terror suspects, police also file serious charges like sedition, murder, waging war, where people don’t get bail easily. Police say they do this because criminals will just go back to committing crimes if they get bail. The important thing is to enhance the trial process and root the criminal justice system in the presumption of innocence.”
The December 16 gang rape in Delhi put the spotlight on the need for reformation in the criminal justice system, but J&K High Court lawyer Nasir Qadri believes the reformation is possible only after involving social and legal scientists in the process.
Talking specifically about undertrials in Indian jails, he says, “Their trials are delayed for many obvious reasons, which prejudice the liberty of an individual. Adding right to speedy trial as a fundamental right was just to add a case law in Journal. We have not seen it being put to practice. There are a huge number of cases in which charges are yet to be framed despite statutory obligations. India claiming to be the largest democracy needs to involve social and legal scientists for major reformation in its judicial system because the concept of the right to life and individual liberty is a mere slogan in India.”
In Jaipur jail, Latief distributes books from home among teen prisoners. But back home, his absence has almost driven his mother crazy. There isn’t a single day that passes when Latief’s mother doesn’t talk about his favourite dish, his brother says. “Thanks to them,” Raja says, “my mother is withering in pain.”
The inability to focus on their careers has been another side-effect of the tragedy Latief’s siblings have had to face. Yet despite the trials and tribulations, the family takes heart from one thing – Latief’s innocence. “My brother was a helpful and cheerful person,” Raja says. “He could never think of harming anyone.”
About the author: Safeena Wani is a Srinagar-based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.