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Uttar Pradesh: Families of five men arrested over charges of ‘being Al-Qaeda members’ pick loopholes in case

Family members of accused Musheerudin show his picture on a cellphone a month after his arrest in July 2021 | Picture: The Leaflet

The absence of the signatures on the recoveries has led many to cast doubts on the authenticity of the claims made by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), who took over the case from the Uttar Pradesh’s Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS).

TCN Staff Correspondent 

NEW DELHI — Glaring loopholes have emerged in Uttar Pradesh’s Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) claims and the subsequent charge sheet filed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) against five men who were arrested from Lucknow in 2021 on charges of being members of an Al-Qaeda module in India.

On July 2021, the ATS claimed to have busted the terror module, known as Ansar Ghazwatul Hind (AGH), by arresting two men identified as Museeruddin (41) and Minhaj Ahmad (32) whose interrogation later on led to the arrest of three more accused namely Mohammad Mustaqeem, Shakeel and Mohammad Moid.

The ATS officials stated that they had recovered explosive substances and other materials required for making Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) from the houses of the two prime accused, Museeruddin and Minhaj, but did not substantiate their claims. 

Precisely, the agency’s recovery memo did not have the signature of any independent witness as mandated by Section 100(6) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), which says that seizure must be witnessed by at least two independent witnesses (respectable inhabitants of the locality in which the place to be searched is situated).

Advocate Najmussaqib Khan, who is representing the two accused in the special NIA court in Lucknow, stated, “There is no independent witness to the raids conducted at the residences of Museeruddin and Minhaj where the ATS claimed to have recovered incriminating materials. The seizure memo does not even have signatures of the fathers of the accused persons.” 

Mustaqeem, Moid, and Shakeel. | Picture by arrangement

The absence of the signatures on the recoveries has led many, he said, to cast doubts on the authenticity of the claims made by the NIA, who took over the case from the ATS and has filed a chargesheet, accessed by TwoCircles.net, even though it is for the court of law to take a call on it.

Families reject ATS claims
However, Museeruddin’s wife Saeeda rejected all the claims made by the NIA. She said that they had bought a new gas stove and a cooker, which the police took away along with their children’s books and some posters in Urdu.

She recounted, “The horror struck our home (at Fatima Nagar area) at around 11 am when security officials in plain clothes came in, picked Museeruddin and took him to Madiyaon police station. We also went along to accompany him. But when I returned a few hours later, security officials had frisked the entire house. I found the new pressure cooker that we bought days ago was missing.”

Museeruddin and Minhaj. | Picture by arrangement

On the other hand, Minhaj’s father, Siraj Ahmad, said he was not informed anything by the raiding party of the ATS, underscoring that the police had completely cordoned off his son’s room during the raid and did not even inform him about the recoveries made. 

Ahmed, who is a retired additional statistics officer, told TwoCircles.net, “They did not even bother to tell us the charges under which my son was arrested.”

The 67-year-old man claimed that the security officials came out from Minhaj’s room after several hours with boxes. When he enquired, they refused to open them. “They frisked us as well and made us sign a blank form before leaving,” he added.

According to him, a recovery memo was furnished to his family only after the NIA took over the case from the ATS on August 4, 2021.

How did the case crack?
According to the chargesheet, the ATS zeroed in on Meesuruddin and Minjah based on the information it received from one Umar Halmandi, an Al Qaeda suspect, based at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Halmandi was allegedly radicalizing and recruiting members for the terror outfit in the “Indian subcontinent”. 

“Halmandi through his associates based in Jammu and Kashmir has already identified and recruited a few people in Lucknow for raising an Al-Qaeda module to carry out terror attacks,” says the chargesheet.

The sources added that Minhaj was “tasked to recruit as many persons as possible for, what they call, jihad” and Museeruddin “instigated to join the same”. Since Museeruddin had already held “orthodox views”, he was an “easy target”. Minhaj asked him to take “baiyat” (pledge) to “serve Al-Qaeda”, alleges the chargesheet.

Since Museeruddin drove an e-rickshaw and Minhaj — an electrical engineer by education — ran a battery shop at Khadra in Lucknow, the two enjoyed working relations, according to investigators.

Museeruddin would often visit Minhaj’s shop to recharge the battery or get other repair works done for his e-rickshaw. Subsequently, they became friends.

The interrogation of the two allegedly led to the arrest of Shakeel and two other accused — Mohammad Mustaqeem and Mohammad Moid. The probe agency said that Mustaqeem temporarily resided at Takiya Taranshah locality at Sitapur Road and Moid lived at New Haiderganj.

NIA takes over the case
The Union government, however, transferred the case to the NIA on July 28, 2021, for further investigation. Accordingly, the central agency took over the investigation and re-registered the case as RC-02/2021/NIA-LKW at Police Station-NIA, Lucknow, on July 29 last year.

According to the NIA chargesheet filed on January 5, 2022, Museeruddin, Minhaj and Shakeel are “important characters” of the case. 

“The interrogation of the accused brought out that they were members of the proscribed terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which is referred to here as the AGH, and they had conspired to wage war against the Government of India. They procured arms, ammunition and explosive materials with the intention to wage the war,” alleges the chargesheet.

The NIA alleged they were planning to commit terrorist acts before August 15, 2021, in various towns of Uttar Pradesh, including Lucknow. 

“They had already arranged arms and explosive substances for committing the terrorist acts,” it alleged.

The NIA claimed that Minhaj adopted the way of “jihad” to “settle the score with other communities” (presumably Hindus). The chargesheet stated that he, at the beginning of 2020, had replied to an Instagram post related to the alleged atrocities of the Indian Army on innocent Kashmiris. 

The NIA claimed in the chargesheet that Minhaj’s comment on the post got a message from a Kashmiri youth — Tawheed Ahmad Shah, a 19-year-old B.Sc. student from Budgam. 

The NIA said that both of them later became friends and started chatting frequently.

“Tawheed asked Minhaj to create an ID on the Telegram app, where the messages are more secure and anonymous. He did so, and they used to discuss issues related to abrogation of Article 370, atrocities being faced by Muslims and that they should go for jihad against these issues,” claimed the investigators. 

They added it was Tawheed who “instigated Minhaj to join jihad”.

The chargesheet alleges that Tawheed shared Minhaj’s Telegram ID with his “ameer” (chief) named Adil Nabi Teli, who was active on the instant messaging service app with the pseudo name Musa. Teli aka Musa, a resident of Galchibal in the Pampore district of Jammu and Kashmir and suspected ‘C’ category militant, was killed in an encounter with the security forces on March 3, 2022. 

“Minhaj subsequently received a message from Musa, and both of them began talking to each other. On Musa’s instructions, Minhaj joined a Telegram channel, ‘Haqaiq Ki Duniya’ (World of Truth). Apart from Tawheed and Musa, others were also members of the group or channel,” states the prosecution’s case.

It alleged that Minhaj donated Tawheed an amount of Rs 93,441 “for the cause of jihad” in five instalments. The alleged amount was credited to the bank account of one Suhail Majeed Magray, also a Jammu and Kashmir resident. 

The NIA also enclosed a summary of Magray’s bank account transactions and credit vouchers, allegedly mentioning Minhaj’s cell phone number. Other than Suhail, Minhaj allegedly deposited money in two other bank accounts in Jammu and Kashmir.

Khan questioned the NIA’s money transfer charges. “Anyone can send money, using some fake names and mobile numbers, as the banking system does not verify the depositor’s identity if the amount to be deposited is less than Rs 50,000,” he said.

“Except one, which is a UPI transfer by someone called Shamsul Ansari, all credits are less than Rs 50,000 and have been done against cash payments to the bank?” he said.    

‘Loopholes in NIA chargesheet’
Notably, the NIA’s case against Minhaj and Museeruddin heavily relies on video recordings of the alleged “baiyat” and conversations through Telegram and WhatsApp. Besides, the NIA also cites the alleged pictures and videos found in the duo’s cell phones and call data records.

Advocate Khan rejected the NIA’s claim of the oath of allegiance taken by Minhaj for Al-Qaeda. “Baiyat is a sworn declaration that needs two individuals: one who is pledging and the other who is administering the oath of allegiance. There is no second person in this case.”

Tawheed, according to the NIA, is the main character of the prosecution’s case who was an “overground worker of the AGH”.

He was summoned by the NIA to join the probe in Lucknow and then arrested on February 7 this year, nearly seven months after the first two arrests were made. He was charge-sheeted only a couple of months ago on August 3, 2022.

“Isn’t it surprising that the man who supports militancy in Kashmir, has contacts with alleged foreign handlers and allegedly radicalised all the accused to wage war against the Government of India and is an over ground worker of a terror organization joins probe when he is asked to do so, gets arrested and charge-sheeted months after his so-called module was busted?” asked Najmussaqib.

To substantiate the claim that Minhaj was in contact with Umar Halmandi, the NIA has enclosed with its chargesheet a Telegram reply, which says the IP address and the mobile phone number linked to the Telegram channel @Qafilahjihad belongs to Afghanistan. 

When asked about it, Advocate Khan drew attention to NIA’s admission that “Minhaj broke his mobile phone, Oppo F-11, by throwing it during the search at his residential premises. And as a result, it caught fire”. 

“When the mobile phone Minhaj was using was destroyed, how did the agency get so much of his alleged digital data?” he asked.

In a letter to his counsel, Minhaj has rubbished the NIA’s allegation of a reconnaissance mission, arguing that “anyone who watches the video with an open mind will say one person is simply showing the other the place where he has been living since childhood.”

He further argued that had it been a reconnaissance mission, he would have deleted it.

Charges slapped
A case (number 10/2021) against all five accused from Lucknow was registered at Police Station ATS, Gomti Nagar under IPC sections of 121 A, 122 and 123 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, sections 13, 18, 18B, 20 and 39 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA, 1967, sections 4 and 5 of the Explosive Substance Act,1908, and sections 3 and 25 of the Arms Act, 1959.

The charges include waging or attempting or abetting, collecting arms, advocating, abetting, advising or inciting an unlawful activity and being a member of a terrorist organisation etc.

Families recount tales of trauma
Saeeda, a mother of four, said her family has virtually been ruined. Her relatives stopped coming to her; her two daughters (aged 15 and 16 years) were expelled from the Lucknow Inter College without any explanation. 

The youngest daughter, 12, has been suffering from some health problems and is unable to attend school and her six-year-old son looks for his father every now and then. 

She concluded, “I simply can’t tell what happened and why it happened. I keep telling him that his father will return soon from work.”

Why UAPA against 3 others?
The chargesheet states that Minhaj, on the instructions of Tawheed, to procure arms and ammunition, contacted Shakeel. Both of them visited Kanpur to get firearms and ammunition.

They met Laiq and Affaq who allegedly showed them a revolver. But the deal, the NIA says, could not materialise as the ammunition was not available.

Minhaj allegedly clicked a photo of the revolver. “Many photos of small firearms were recovered from Minhaj’s digital extracted data,” alleges the investigating agency.

Minhaj then allegedly contacted Mustaqeem and asked him to arrange the same. The duo along with Museeruddin in February 2021 allegedly met one Saddam at Shamli who refused to arrange the weapons.

Mustaqeem then allegedly reached out to Moid who handed over a pistol to Minhaj for Rs 40,000 at Kacchi Dhal near Lucknow’s Khadra locality on July 10, 2021. And the next day, the investigators allege, he also arranged the ammunition required.

“The said pistol along with four ammunitions were recovered during the search of Minhaj’s house by the UP ATS,” the chargesheet claims, further alleging that “three more ammunitions were recovered from his residence on July 25 following his disclosure during interrogation”.

Moid had allegedly purchased the pistol and the rounds from one Ajaz Mohammad, a resident of Faridipur village at Lucknow Dubagga.

Despite no recovery and possession of any firearm from Shakeel, Mustaqeem and Moid, the trio were booked under the same sections of the IPC, the UAPA, the Arms Act and the Explosive Substance Act by the UP ATS.

But when the NIA took over, it removed section 25 (1b) (a) of the Arms Act against the trio.

“Ideally, they should have filed an FR (final report), saying that there is no evidence to support the charges. To book someone under the Arms Act, there must be recovery, possession, purchase and sale of firearms by the accused. But the NIA chargesheet does not establish it,” said Khan, wondering how they were booked for waging war and carrying out terror activities.

The NIA has concluded that Shakeel, Mustaqeem and Moid “aided and abetted” Minhaj and Museeruddin in “procuring weapons and ammunitions, thus becoming a party in furtherance of the “larger conspiracy”.

But nowhere in the chargesheet, the NIA has established that the trio were aware of the alleged intention or conspiracy hatched by Minhaj and Museeruddin.