Men in black who stood by the Constitution and justice

    This special TCN series highlights some of the example cases of people accused of terrorism and their struggle for justice. This series is sponsored by Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC).

    By Mohd. Ismail Khan,

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    “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” this line by Martin Luther King Jr. still stands true to its spirit, especially in the age of new India where jingoism and Islamophobia is alarmingly ruling the roost.

    The narrative and perception building around terrorism is so strong that anyone who even get picked up by the security agencies for mere suspicion, questioning or sort easily get fallen into that chronicle of ‘Desh Drohi’ Anti-National, thus virtually become untouchables in our minds.

    Advocate Khalid Azmi

    Ours is a democratic country with a constitution putting rule of law at its helm, Article 39A of constitution provides free legal aid to a person accused of any crime, this golden rule of criminal prosecution is easy said than done. Not every accused is fortunate enough to get this mandatory legal assistance at least without any opposition, especially when the cases fits in our terror narrative and question the very essence of loyalty to the nation.

    In Mohd. Hussain @ Zulfikar Ali Vs. The State (Govt. of NCT) Delhi 2006 Supreme Court ordered re-trial of the Blueline Bus Blast Case 1997 when accused (a Pakistani national) approached SC demanding fair trial as no counsel was provided to him during trial court proceedings, highest court of India upheld that even a foreign national cannot be denied right to legal representation.

    Indian Muslims, who are accused of terrorism, often becomes ‘legally untouchable’ and find it hard to get swift legal representation. Not many advocates are encouraged to take up these cases, which they fear would harm their reputation, will put questions on their faithfulness to the nation, and most of it could put their life in danger.

    On Feb 11, 2010 when Advocate Shahid Azmi was shot dead in his office at Kurla, Mumbai, the challenges and threats faced by advocates representing terror accused was brought to lime light, but only after a crusader for justice lost his precious life. This gruesome murder didn’t scare off his younger brother Khalid Azmi who got his law degree just four months before Shahid’s assassination to make a decision to walk on the path set up by his brother, he decided not to let assassins of his brother get successful in their aim of scaring advocates who were fighting terror cases.

    Adv. Khalid’s very first court hearing was 26/11 Mumbai terror attack case where his martyr elder brother has finished most of the argument, which Khalid saw through the acquittal of both the accused Fahim Ansari and Sabauddin Ahmad. Since then Adv. Khalid Azmi also worked for many other cases which his slain brother left behind, like 7/11 Blast Case, Malegaon 2006 Blast Case, Aurangabad Arms Haul Case, and Ahmedabad Bomb Blasts Case, where allegedly many innocent Muslim youths were rounded up. Recently he also appeared for Azad Maidan violence case accused mostly young uneducated, emotional Muslim youths who were booked under serious charges like sec 302 of I.P.C. and Arms act. Khalid was successful in bailing 33 accused out of jail.

    But it wasn’t an easy call to make for Khalid Azmi after witnessing firsthand the sacrifice which a cause bring with itself, Khalid said in the beginning he was afraid and depressed, “I was getting discouraged in joining the practice, but soon I realized that my best tribute to my brother will be to take forward his legacy of fighting for the oppressed and voiceless.”

    In a word Kahlid describe work of his brother Shahid as ‘fantastic’, but it wasn’t a cake walk for Khalid to give that work a meaning. Khalid said the atmosphere in the courtroom has never been constructive, he can observe staff and other advocates looking down on him, “Antakwadi ka advocate (advocate of a terrorist) that’s what they think when they look at me walking in the court,” the one incident he can never forget was in Malegaon Session Court. It was big day for Khalid, bail of the blast accused was accepted, but court lady clerk was delaying the transfer of files on the ground of insufficient time, when Khalid got into an argument over court procedure, she told him abruptly, ‘Tera bhai tu gaya, ab tu bhi jayega’ (your brother had gone, you will follow him soon) that remark on his day of triumphant again startled him and reminded the backlash of kind of work he is doing.

    Advocate Naushad Kashimji was killed in 2009

    Though Shahid Azmi’s case received considerable attention, one more Human Rights advocate down south who was killed in the same fashion didn’t catch our attention. Naushad Kashimji a young advocate much like Shahid was killed on April 9, 2009 outside his residence in Mangalore. His onetime senior Purushottam Poojary lodged a police complaint alleging that Naushad was assassinated by Dakshin Kanada Police force as “Nuashad had appeared in the court on behalf of some persons accused of terrorist activities, and had passed certain comments against the police department in the court. “

    Local police was quick to give it an underworld connection and arrested five people of Ravi Pojara gang in just 15 days. Family of Nushad never accepted this police version they alleged police was threating him to stop fighting cases of people accused in terrorism, his wife Nusarth Jahan even knocked the door of the High Court for CBI enquiry alleging disparities in the present enquiry by investigating officer who was in fact the junior of four accused senior police officer in the initial compliant, on July 2011 single bench of Karnataka High Court ordered a CBI inquiry in Naushad Kashimji’s murder case, but soon on Feb 2012 Dakshina Kanada Police reversed that order by approaching larger bench citing “transfer of the case out of local police hands will shake their ‘self-confidence’ and ‘morale’.” So thus investigation is being carried out by police which itself is an accused in the case, and scapegoats are arrested only to be get acquitted by large loopholes in the police charge sheet as alleged by slain advocate’s family.

    Attacked office of Ismail Jalagar

    In the same state Advocate Ismail D Jalagar is fighting a silent legal battle in Hubli court, since 2008 he is representing some highly educated Muslim youths who have been arrested for allegedly being part of SIMI hit squad. And since then have witnessed even colleagues turning into enemies.

    Mr. Ismail Jalagar dared to defy Hubli Bar Association resolution calling for ‘not to fight cases on behalf of persons charged with anti-national (terror) activities’, when he first filed bail petition in that terror case for Mohammed Asif a final year MBBS student, he started receiving threat calls, the same night his junior’s house was stoned, his office was put on fire, he was branded as SIMI member and bar association called for his boycott.

    All this pressure tactics didn’t work on Mr. Jalagar who was hell-bent on upholding his oath of duty, “Our constitution has made legal aid a mandatory requirement in any court trial, in Indian Criminal Law System until a person is proven guilty by a court of law, he will be considered as innocent, and it is on this basic tenet cases are being fought, but now in judicial apparatus biases are penetrated so deep, that legal representation is being decided by clients affiliations.” He added, “There are advocates in Hubli Bar representing Right-wing Hindu elements involved in blast in churches or inciting communal violence but this doesn’t come under their fanatic definition of terrorism.”

    Advocate Ismail Jalagar holds that even in court room pressure are being build up by delaying trials, “Take for example this Hubli Conspiracy Case it is being dragged on for past five years without any proper trial, even there are orders from Supreme Court to make hearing on day to day basis for speedy trial. Sometimes one can witness eager lack of application of mind in this kind of cases.”

    Advocate Jalagar said pressure tactics from what he called right-wing fanatic elements in courts cannot scare him from doing his job, Naushad Kashimji’s killing did dishearten him but he said, “Ultimately it is God who will decide our fate, but whatever you have taken up you have to face it”.

    Advocate Noor Mohammad getting manhandled in Dhar Court

    In rural central India 66 year old Advocate Noor Mohammed Khan from Ujjain town Madhya Pradesh is another daring example defied ‘boycott of justice’ and resisted Dhar Court Bar Association resolution to not provide legal assistance to terror accused. Advocate Noor Mohammed who is practicing law since 1973 in Ujjain started taking up cases of Muslim youths accused in SIMI cases when no other advocate was coming forward for their legal assistance. In Dhar District Court this sexagenarian was beaten up twice for representing SIMI accused and filing their bail petition, in first instance his face was blacked and he was furiously kicked in the courtroom in front of judge at the initial proceeding, after two months when he again appeared for filing bail petition, Hindutva activists attacked him so violently that he lost consciousness and was shifted to a Govt. hospital in police escort.

    But those attacks didn’t deter the spirit of Noor Mohammed who continued to fight for cases of Muslim youths accused under dreaded UAPA and branded as terrorist. Advocate Noor Mohammed said “Indian constitution has provided right to equality before law, every accused has right to legal representation so do terror accused, if we start crushing this right in the name of tackling anti-nationalism, than it won’t be any difference between us and anti-nationals.”

    Advocate Noor Mohammed stress that honesty, determination and sense of justice is necessary for fighting against the bigoted system to provide legal assistance to people who have already being declared betrayer of nation without even a trial.

    Advocate Saleem was attacked in the Faizabad Court.

    All those above credentials of an advocate of justice is clench up by one lawyer in Hyderabad who has his foot prints in every minor to major terror case in the city since late 1990’s where Muslim youths were rounded up, he represented accused whom he felt were targeted by the police without any proper evidence in shroud investigations.

    He was successful in acquiring long list of acquittals in many of these terror cases, whenever he walked into the courtroom for representing those accused it was only with the sense of justice, moreover his clients claims that he never charged not even single penny for providing legal aid, one of the accused in Mecca Masjid blast case told us that this advocate didn’t even took court fee from the family of the accused which generally other civil rights advocates will feel is their right.

    But all to his peculiar judicial activism, he doesn’t like publicity, in the period when some advocates are using terror cases to make them famous, this man who is challenging major terror case theories in the court since 1990’s till now has yet to give an interview to any news agency.

    On the condition of anonymity and with the hope that his life story could inspire other young Muslim law students, he spoke to and said, “Whatever I am doing is for the sake of Allah, I am answerable and accountable to him, I don’t like fanfare for my personal deeds.” This advocate from Hyderabad apart from terror cases enjoy considerable success in criminal law practice and is a big name in legal circles. Advocate said he basically took up law to help the oppressed, “when I was young my elder brother was arrested under POTA, even though my father was sitting MLA no advocate came forward to take up his case, during that period I observed how a family suffers with the tag of terrorism, I decided than that I will take up law to help families who gets branded as anti-national and have no place to go in their own country.”

    Advocate Mohammad Shoaib in his chamber in Lucknow. [TCN Photo]

    Unlike this anonymous advocate from Hyderabad who believes in doing his work quietly, there are some committed lawyers who took their crusades for justice to the public platform. Advocate from Lucknow Mohammad Shoaib defied many Bar Association’s bans in Uttar Pradesh on representing terror accused, in the packed court hall he is being called ‘Pakistani agent, defending Pakistani terrorist’, he was attacked in Faizabad, and Barbanki courts for handling UP court blast case and Gorakhpur blast, in Lucknow sessions court he was not only attacked but was humiliated in the court premises, after the office of his colleague AM Faridi was stoned, Advocate Shaoib told TCN, “I was brutally beaten up, my clothes were ripped off and they paraded me in the court campus in my undergarments.”

    All this intimidation doesn’t deter Advocate Shoaib from pursuing case of innocent Muslim youths; he gave a big blow to STF when he proved all its concocted theories of police wrong in the court regarding Aftab Alam Ansari whom STF was claiming to be a HuJI militant, Advocate Shoaib was successful in getting his acquittal.

    All the thrashings in courts made him more adamant for justice; he formed Rihai Manch a forum for public agitation and to provide legal assistance to Muslim youths falsely implicated in terror cases.

    Advocate Shoiab said this determination for fight rights he learned during his student movement days and he felt happy fighting for voiceless, he felt that chauvinism in judicial system is due to the profession getting more and more criminalized, “Those bar associations passing resolutions and attacking advocates of terror accused don’t understand ABC of constitution, they are the biggest rivals of constitution and legal system are unfortunately sitting in our courts, every accused has a right to legal representation, it should be upheld even if it hurt the sentiments of some fanatic legal practitioners.”

    Recently his colleague in Barbanki Court Mohammed Saleem was brutally attacked for participating in protest condemning Khalid Mujahid’s death in police custody, it was not just 2008 even in 2013 fears looms over him of getting attacked and killed by black court mafia, responding to this element of fear Advocate Shoaib said, “One journalist asked me the same thing in 2008 when I was first attacked, I told him that I will fight for justice ‘Dastoor ke naam pe shahadat naseeb hone tak’ (till I become a martyr in the name of constitution) I still stand on my words.”

    These Men in Black who are raising against judicial terrorism and providing voice to the oppressed are the real heroes of our society, as the saying goes, ‘True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice’, these brave advocates are real legal crusaders who are serving to keep the law blind and the spark of justice ignited.