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Rediff.com  » News » Caught in the POTA trap

Caught in the POTA trap

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March 11, 2004 16:12 IST

Part I: Jharkhand has more POTA detenues than J&K!

Who are those detained under POTA, a law meant to fight terrorism? Are they people who 'threaten the unity, integrity, security or sovereignty of India or strike terror among the people'?

rediff.com looks at six cases from across the country.

JHARKHAND

It was on November 15, 2000, that the state of Jharkhand came into existence. But India's 28th state, carved out of 18 impoverished districts of Bihar, has achieved a dubious distinction in the last two years: it has the largest number of POTA cases -- 234 (until January 2004).

Worse, a group of human rights activists under the Confederation of Human Rights Organisations, which toured the state recently, estimates that the official figures are wrong. The confederation places the number of POTA arrests in Jharkhand above 300 and claims that some 3,200 people across Jharkhand have been booked under the law in the last 18 months.

Activists say there are teenage girls languishing under POTA in jails across Jharkhand. One such case is that of 14-year-old Mayanti Rajkumari, who left for school on July 9, 2002, and never returned home. Later her father was told that she had been arrested and charged under POTA.

Rajkumari's fate hangs in the balance as government officials and human rights activists debate the issue of 'use and misuse' of POTA in this Naxalite-infested, tribal-dominated state.

Rajkumari's father Etwa, 40, has given up hope of securing his daughter's release. This tribal farmer with five acres of non-irrigated land has neither the resources nor the energy to chase the police and the courts.

A resident of Pandrani village in Gumla district, Rajkumari was a seventh standard student in a government school in her village. The police picked her up while she was on her way back home.

When she did not return till late in the evening, her parents and brothers got worried and began looking for her.

The next morning police informed the family that Rajkumari had been arrested along with 24 others for allegedly planning to attack a dhaba [roadside eatery] 18km away from her school. All of them, including Rajkumari, were booked under POTA. The FIR says Rajkumari was part of a group of '17-18' Maoist Communist Centre extremists.

The police say the group was planning to launch an attack but fled when they reached the spot on being tipped off. But Etwa believes the charges are cooked up. He says his daughter had gone to her grandparents' house in nearby Sisai village after school. It was when she was about to board a bus at Sisai to return home that the police took her into custody.

Etwa, however, has no money to file a petition against his daughter's arrest.

Rajkumari is not alone. Fifteen other tribal women are facing a similar situation elsewhere in Jharkhand.

Human rights activists say there are cases of people who have been granted bail by the courts, but they continue to be in jail because their families do not have the money for their bonds.

Jharkhand also holds the dubious record of having the youngest and oldest prisoners under POTA. The youngest is 12-year-old Gaya Singh; the oldest is 81-ear-old Rajnath Mahto.

The activists say the number of those detained under POTA is growing by the day. Most of these arrests have been made in Ranchi, Hazaribagh, Palamu, Chatra and Gumla districts.

The state government, however, counters that POTA is being used in these areas to curb the Naxalites who dominate large parts of Jharkhand.

VAIKO

He was one of Tamil Nadu's most flamboyant politicians. But for almost 20 months, until February 7, 2004, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader V Gopalasamy aka Vaiko, a lawyer by training, a post-graduate in economics, and a Member of Parliament, languished in the Vellore central jail.

The J Jayalalithaa government in Tamil Nadu invoked POTA to convince a court to issue a non-bailable warrant for Vaiko's arrest for making a speech in the state on June 29, 2002, supporting Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an organisation banned under the law.

Vaiko, one of the most consistent supporters of the LTTE, had caused a furore in 1989 when, as a DMK member, he had travelled to Sri Lanka illegally, crossing the Palk Straits and meeting LTTE chief V Prabhakaran even as Indian troops were engaged in a bloody war with the rebels.

After his arrest, Vaiko has been accusing Jayalalithaa of using the anti-terror law to intimidate political opponents. He refused to move the special POTA court for his release, and instead challenged his arrest on the grounds that the state government was using POTA for political vendetta. A POTA court in Chennai is yet to deliver a verdict on Vaiko.

The irony is that it was politicians like Vaiko, one of the alliance partners of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, who had wholeheartedly supported the anti-terrorism law. On December 12, 2003, the designated POTA court in Chennai rejected Vaiko's application for permission to participate in the winter session of Parliament.

Vaiko's prolonged detention became an embarrassment for Vajpayee's government, which found itself powerless to assist its ally, because law and order is a state subject. The detention eventually became a point of friction between the NDA and the MDMK and, on December 30 last year, the two MDMK ministers in the government, M Kannappan and Gingee N Ramachandran, resigned.

"Our leader has been in jail for nearly two years now," MDMK Chairman L Ganesan told rediff.com at the time. "But the Vajpayee government has been able to do nothing to free him. So what is the point continuing in government?"

Vaiko eventually secured bail from the designated POTA court at Poonamallee on February 3 and was released four days later after completing all the formalities. The Central POTA Review Committee is also looking into his case now, along with that of Tamil newsmagazine Nakeeran editor R R Gopal and eight associates of Vaiko.

SYED ABDUL REHMAN GEELANI

Syed Abdul Rehman Geelani, 34, a lecturer in Arabic at Delhi University's Zakir Hussain College, was picked up by the Delhi police on December 14, 2001, while he was travelling in a city bus.

The previous day, five terrorists had attacked Parliament.

Geelani was charged under POTA with helping the terrorists in their plan. Three others, including the wife of another accused, were also arrested and indicted in the case under POTA.

On October 29, 2003, Geelani and the woman, Navjot Sandhu alias Afsan Guru, became the first people accused under POTA to be acquitted when the Delhi high court overturned their conviction by the trial court and declared them free. Geelani had been sentenced to death by the trial court. But the high court found no evidence against him, or Guru.

The entire case against Geelani rested on the transcript of a telephone conversation between him and his cousin in Srinagar in which Geelani allegedly gloated over the attack on Parliament. But a division bench of the high court found nothing incriminating in the conversation. 'Even assuming that the prosecution [translation] was correct,' the judges said, 'there was nothing which could incriminate Geelani.'

Geelani's was a unique case in which leading activists like Rajni Kothari, Surender Mohan, Arundhati Roy, Aruna Roy and several others formed a defence committee to fight for the lecturer's release. Former law minister Ram Jethmalani argued Geelani's case in the high court.

A free man once again after spending more than two years in jail, Geelani firmly believes "there is no place for POTA in a civilised society".

JAMMU AND KASHMIR

Ghulam Moinuddin Bhat, who ran a news agency called the Kashmir Press Service and edited an Urdu daily Tameel-e-Irshad in Srinagar, was arrested in May 2003 in Delhi by the special cell of the Delhi police.

Bhat was arrested at midnight near the Moolchand flyover in south Delhi. The police claimed to have seized from him Rs 6.5 lakhs in cash, a Chinese pistol with 16 cartridges, and a watch with a built-in spy camera.

Bhat was indicted under POTA for 'waging war against the State.' The police said he was waiting to receive money from his contacts when he was arrested. The money, police claimed, was used to fund terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir.

Bhat pleaded he was in Delhi for business. His lawyer Zia-ur-Rehman said nothing was recovered from Bhat and there was no witness when he was arrested. He claimed that Bhat had been implicated in the case because he refused to write articles favouring the government.

The case is being tried in Delhi's Patiala House court. Bhat is lodged in Tihar jail.

Bhat's is not a rare case. Several other Kashmiris have been arrested outside Jammu and Kashmir under POTA. According to the government's figures, correct till the end of last year, 181 Kashmiris have so far been arrested under POTA, both within and outside the state. Rights activists say the actual figure could be higher.

Last year, Kashmiri students studying in colleges in Muzaffarnagar, Ghaziabad and Meerut in Uttar Pradesh had accused the police of harassing them in the name of verification of their antecedents. Four of the students were arrested under POTA. The crackdown on Kashmiri students outside their home state stopped only after the media highlighted their plight.

Interestingly, more Kashmiris have become the target of POTA outside their home state. Legal experts say this is because Jammu and Kashmir has the Public Safety Act, which is more draconian than POTA. Under POTA, an accused can be held in custody without charge for six months. But the PSA allows the police and other security forces to keep a person in custody for as long as two years without filing charges. What's more, the government can extend this period further.

Activists, however, admit that POTA has been sparingly used in the state after the government led by Mufti Mohammed Sayeed came to power in 2002.

UTTAR PRADESH

Raghuraj Pratap Singh aka 'Raja Bhaiya,' an independent MLA and 'king' of his constituency, Kunda, in central Uttar Pradesh had helped form and destroy governments in the state. A law unto himself, Singh organised his own courts and delivered verdicts that the villagers accepted with 'respect.'

The man who held Pratapgarh district in his thrall was brought to book only when he dared spearhead a revolt against the erstwhile Bahujan Samaj Party-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition government led by the redoubtable Mayawati.

Singh, his father Udai Pratap Singh, and a relative Akshay Pratap Singh alias Gopalji were arrested in September 2002 under the National Security Act after Raja Bhaiya tried to topple the government in concert with the Samajwadi Party, then in the opposition.

With the father-son duo in jail, Mayawati went about systematically demolishing their fiefdom. In the process, several tales about the family's excesses started coming to the fore. Raghuraj Pratap Singh had 35 criminal cases filed against him, but the law had never dared touch him before. Now, the district police found human skulls on Singh's palace premises. Villagers told the police that he bred crocodiles in an artificial lake on his grounds, and fed those who dared defy him to the reptiles.

On Republic Day 2003, Mayawati slapped POTA on the three men.

On February 3, 2003, Rajender Yadav, one of the main witnesses against Raghuraj Pratap Singh, was shot dead by two assailants. Yadav, head of Baand Mau village, had lodged a complaint against Singh.

Six months later, Mayawati's government fell and Mulayam Singh Yadav took over the state's reins on August 29, 2003. Just 25 minutes after taking charge, the Samajwadi Party boss decreed that all POTA cases slapped on politicians, including on Raghuraj Pratap Singh and his father, would be withdrawn.

BJP leaders, who had earlier supported Mayawati, had also been upset that Raghuraj Pratap Singh, a so-called upper-caste leader who had earlier helped them form a government in the state, had been treated thus. They too welcomed Mulayam Singh's decision.

The Kunda family would have been out ruling their fiefdom again, if it were not for the Supreme Court, which heard a petition challenging the state government's decision and ruled on December 18, 2003, that POTA charges could not be withdrawn like this without prior consent of the central government.

Raghuraj Pratap Singh and his kinsmen continue to remain in Kanpur jail.

A US CITIZEN

Mohammed Yasin Patel, 30, an American national, and his brother-in-law Ashraff Jaffrey, 27, an Indian citizen, were sentenced to seven years in prison by a designated POTA court in Delhi on July 21, 2003.

Patel and Jaffrey were arrested around midnight while pasting what police said were anti-national posters in the campus of the Jamia Millia Islamia University, a predominantly Muslim institution in south Delhi, in September 2002. One of the posters had a fist with India's map in the background. 'Destroy Nationalism, Establish Khilafat' was the slogan on the poster. The posters belonged to the banned Students Islamic Movement of India.

But counsel for the accused claimed they had been picked up from home and the literature seized came from some old magazines in the house. He also pointed out that there was no witness when they were arrested. Patel and Jaffrey lived together in Okhla in south Delhi.

In his verdict, Judge S N Dhingra said Patel believed in an international Islamic order and wanted to destroy Indian nationalism. 'He had chosen India as his workshop,' the judge observed. 'A person who chooses to become an American national and works for the destruction for other countries does not deserve leniency.'

The court said about Jaffrey: 'Despite being an Indian, having been born and brought up in this country and having liberties and freedom of this nation, he has been out to pollute the atmosphere of the country by bringing hatred between communities and propagating the destruction of Indian nationalism and bringing an Islamic order in India.'

Patel shouted 'Allahu Akbar' [god is great] as the sentence was pronounced. "If the Best Bakery case was miscarriage of justice, this verdict is a travesty of justice," he later complained. He was referring to a verdict passed by a Vadodara court acquitting 22 people who were alleged to have torched 12 Muslims during the communal frenzy in the state in 2002.

Patel's family lives in New Jersey in the US. His parents had emigrated to the US a long time ago. But Patel returned at the age of 17 to study in a madrasa (Islamic seminary) in Deoband in western Uttar Pradesh. After obtaining a bachelor's degree, he moved to Delhi where he became associated with SIMI. The outfit was banned in September 2001 for indulging in activities prejudicial to the country's unity and integrity.

After the ban on SIMI, Patel moved to Ahmedabad along with Jaffrey. After the riots in Gujarat in February-March 2002, the two returned to Delhi where they planned to set up a printing press. But police claimed they wanted to revive SIMI's activities.

Patel and Jaffrey are imprisoned in Tihar jail while their appeal is pending in the Delhi high court.

George Iype and Ehtasham Khan
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