The colour of violent death had etched itself over the city’s dusty rose-pink walls, soaking the vivid fabrics lining the Johri Bazaar, and the brightly-coloured icons on the walls of the Hanuman temple. The message of the massacre was crafted in black text on a flickering white computer screen, at a nearby cybercafé. The bombing, the email from the perpetrators read, was meant to teach the Kuffar-e-Hind, or Indian infidels “that if Islam and Muslims in this country are not safe then the light of your safety will also go off.”
Fifteen years after the murderous 2008 Indian Mujahideen terrorist attacks on Jaipur, which claimed 63 lives, the Rajasthan High Court acquitted four men earlier sentenced to death for the attacks. Justice Samir Jain and Justice Pankaj Bhandari based their judgment on compelling evidence that the prosecution relied on fabricated documents, and false testimony.
The judgment is bad news for a string of terrorism cases pending against several of the same suspects—some of which, like the serial bombings in Ahmedabad in Surat, have led to death penalties being delivered during trials, and others which are progressing slower than glaciers. In some of those cases, like Varanasi and Mumbai, there are credible reasons to fear that the wrong people may have been scapegoated—even while the real perpetrators, though in custody, have not been prosecuted.
The Rajasthan High Court is the first appellate court to subject an Indian Mujahideen case to rigorous scrutiny—and if other acquittals follow, there will be a compelling case for a thoroughgoing verdict. The judges have described the case as an “institutional failure”. “This isn’t the first case to suffer due to the failure of investigation agencies and if things are allowed to continue the way they are, this certainly won’t be the last,” observed Justice Jain.
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A comedic investigation
The Rajasthan High Court discovered the police had made a series of darkly comedic efforts to prove their case. The police produced a bill for the cycle Mohammad Saif was alleged to have purchased to plant the bomb, recording its frame number as 97908. The cycle used in the bombing, though, was number 30616. To make things worse, the bill bore signs of obvious forgery. Even though every other bill issued by the Anju Cycle Company bore grooves where it was torn, this single one was smooth.
Faced with the significant problem that the cycle shop seemed to have issued the bill a day before the bombing when the suspects were not in the city, someone simply changed the date in ink on the carbon copy produced in court.
In cross-examination, the owner of the cycle shop said that he recognised Mohammad Saif from a mark on his face. In an earlier identification parade conducted by a magistrate, though, Saif was not recorded to have a mark on his face. Local salesperson Vinod Kumar Giri, moreover, said there were no distinguishing marks on Saif’s face.
Almost incredibly, investigators never seized and studied user records or the central processing unit at the Naveen Café, from where the Indian Mujahideen had sent its claim of responsibility. The police did submit a site plan of the premises—but it did not, surprisingly, show there was ever a computer there.
Even though the trial judge who first heard the case proved willing to overlook the problems with the prosecution case, justices Jain and Bhandari proved somewhat less accommodating. The embarrassed state government has said it will appeal—but new evidence is not going to appear to help it make its case.
“The prosecution story may be true,” the Supreme Court noted in a famous 1957 judgment, “but between ‘may be true’ and ‘must be true’ there is inevitably a long distance to travel and the whole of this distance must be covered by legal, reliable and unimpeachable evidence.”
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A dead man’s tale
Like most Indian Mujahideen cases, the Jaipur bombing investigation centred around a dead man: Alleged Indian Mujahideen commander Muhammad Atif Ameen, who was shot dead by the Delhi Police at an apartment in the city’s Batla House neighbourhood in September 2008. Ameen was alleged to have commanded the terror cell which staged a series of bombings from February 2005 onwards—including attacks in New Delhi.
The central figure in the Jaipur prosecution, Muhammad Saif, is alleged to have been part of a group of Azamgarh residents recruited by Ameen, and other core Indian Mujahideen leaders, to help stage the bombings. The son of a minor Azamgarh politician, and a graduate of the Shibli College and Poorvanchal University, Saif allegedly survived the firing at Batla House by hiding in the bathroom.
In confession testimony to the National Investigation Agency—which cannot be used for the purposes of his trial, but has been obtained by ThePrint—alleged Indian Mujahideen bomb-maker Mohammed Zarar Siddibappa, also known as Yasin Bhatkal, said he provided wood-case claymore mines, which Ameen then used for the bombings.
According to prosecutors, Ameen and nine volunteers, including Saif, boarded a bus to Jaipur from Delhi’s Bikaner House, on the morning of the bombing. They were provided Rs. 3,000 each by Ameen, the prosecution claimed, to purchase a bicycle on which to plant the devices. That evening, about half an hour after the explosions, the men returned to Delhi by train, using assumed names.
The police did not trouble themselves, though, with producing the tickets used for the journey or locating witnesses who might remember having seen the men during their travel. There was no CCTV footage to prove the claim, nor forensic evidence of the kind used in the prosecution of an Indian Mujahideen bombing in New Delhi.
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The question of justice
Egregious disinterest in the truth scarred the police investigation of the Indian Mujahideen case from the outset. Evidence exists that even the NIA suspects Kamal Sheikh, Faisal Ansari, Ehtesham Siddiqui, Naveed Khan and Asif Khan, sentenced to death for their role in the bombing of Mumbai’s suburban train system in 2006, had nothing to do with the attack. The NIA even stated in court that the bombings were carried out by Indian Mujahideen operatives other than the convicts.
The Mumbai Crime Branch filed a chargesheet indicting key Indian Mujahideen operative Sadiq Israr Sheikh—since convicted in the Ahmedabad case—for the 7/11 train bombings. That chargesheet is yet to be acted on by courts, and appeals by those convicted are yet to be heard.
Varanasi resident Mohammad Waliullah was blamed for the 2005 bombing of the Sankat Mochan temple, the terrorist group’s first attack. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the possession of an assault rifle, grenades and plastic explosives—but not of the attack itself. The actual perpetrators, believed by police to be part of Ameen’s group, were never prosecuted. Two Kashmiri men wrongly blamed for another Indian Mujahideen-executed attack in Delhi were exonerated in 2017.
Little mystery remains on the origins and operatives of the Indian Mujahideen—mainly because the group’s own members have told their story, in public. Abu Rashid Ahmad, among the key members of Ameen’s network, together with other Indian Mujahideen operatives, appeared in an Islamic State video claiming responsibility for several bombings. The police’s failure to secure credible prosecutions, though, has long bred conspiracy theories and fuelled claims that law enforcement uses terrorism as a pretext to persecute innocent victims.
From the words of the Indian Mujahideen, it is evident justice was among the issues which enabled the jihadist group to recruit volunteers. The perpetrators of violence against Muslims in communal riots across India, the Jaipur manifesto noted, had rarely faced criminal trial. Even though there were thousands of killings in Mumbai after 1993, and Gujarat in 2002, just a handful of perpetrators were ever tried. Terrorists who staged revenge attacks, the Jaipur Manifesto noted, were even “now being brought back from different countries of the world.”
The Rajasthan acquittal has made it imperative for India’s criminal justice system to admit to mistakes made—and begin settings wrongs right.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)