Long wait for acquittals: stories of the innocents

A series of blasts on February 14, 1998 in Coimbatore killed 58 and injured over 200 people. Ever since that serial blasts Muslims of this town became soft targets for investigators. Muslim youth of Coimbatore have been picked up for blasts from here to Bangalore.

Mercifully the judiciary has come to their rescue but not before years lost behind bars trying to prove their innocence. Rohan Premkumar in a five-part series examines the unenviable plight of the Muslims and how their lives have been ruined after being arraigned in terror-related cases.

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Mubarak Ali

Coimbatore: In May of 2013, police officers from the Bangalore anti-terror squad had proudly declared Saddam Hussain, a resident of Karumbukadai here, as a prize catch in the case relating to bomb blasts near the BJP office in the Karnataka capital. Hussain was arrested along with six other Muslim men from the textile city, all of whom, according to the police had links in the April 2013 blasts.

Going by the account of the police, Hussain was the one who provided “material support” to the prime suspects in the case Bilal Malik and ‘Police’ Fakrudeen, both “Islamic fundamentalists,” who are since lodged in prison in Tamil Nadu. A vast section of the media was quick to dub Hussain an Islamic fundamentalist and dreaded terrorist.

However, within a few months, a court in Bangalore acquitted Hussain and another accused Peer Moideen because prosecution told court that there was no evidence against them. And for the media the Islamic ‘fundamentalists’ overnight became “innocent Tamils”.

The case of Hussain and Moideen is not an isolated one. They have merely joined a long line of alleged terror suspects from Coimbatore who were later released or acquitted.

The records speak for themselves. While over 180 Muslims were arrested following the serial blasts of February 1998 in Coimbatore, only 166 of them were charge-sheeted. Two of them died in jail even before the judgment on their guilt or otherwise was delivered, nearly 10 years later.

Of the 44 who were sentenced to life imprisonment by the trial court, 22 were acquitted on appeal. Around a 100 accused were awarded “light” sentences.

Muslim activists, who keenly followed the progress of their cases, said that by the time their sentences were handed out to them, most of them had served a lengthy prison term and were released, while the others were given prison sentences ranging from two to four years.

“Even those who were sentenced to jail, could have appealed to the higher courts and been acquitted. However, most of them were extremely poor and their families simply could not meet the legal expenses and so served out their sentences,” contended Samsudeen of the Charitable Trust of Minorities.

A former Crime Branch CID (Special Investigation Division) officer, requesting anonymity, argued that “procedural lapses” had led to the acquittals. He insisted that the agency made “minimal” mistakes in investigating terror suspects.

“There is always pressure to solve terror cases expeditiously. However, the CB-CID is an extremely effective investigative agency which does not pick up innocent people arbitrarily,” he claimed.

However, People’s Union for Civil Liberties activist and lawyer Nagasaila, alleged that arbitrary detention of Muslim youths by police was “common and widespread.” Speaking of the 1993 bombings of the RSS office in Chennai, she said that police had zeroed in on small-time members of the Al-Umma outfit and they became radicalised after their terms in prison.

Nagasaila said ahead of the 1998 serial blasts when Muslims were targeted following the murder of police constable Selvaraj, she had heard eyewitness testimonies of Muslim youths, attempting to hide at the morgue in the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital to escape from armed Hindu fundamentalists. “Those thinking that the morgue would provide them sanctuary were proved wrong. Hindu fundamentalists entered the room and began stabbing bodies,” she claimed.

Nagasaila accused the state police apparatus of unfairly targeting Muslims.

Terror Tales