Ajit Bhattacharjea, Hindustan Times, October 12, 2006
Four Octobers ago, a well-known Kashmiri journalist, Iftikhar Gilani, was in Tihar jail facing indefinite incarceration on concocted charges. He had been jailed after a cursory trial on June 9, 2002 and was abruptly released after seven months when the charges were withdrawn. Gilani had a rough time, but was relatively fortunate. As chief of bureau of the Kashmir Times in Delhi, he had many journalist friends and others who campaigned for his release. The charge against him under the Official Secrets Act was found to be fabricated.
The primary evidence produced by the police was a document on the hard disk of Gilani’s computer with details of the number of Indian security forces in Kashmir. But this was not secret information. It was, as he pleaded, a paper by one Nazir Kamal already published in the journal of the Pakistan Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad Papers, and taken from their website. Offers to demonstrate this by securing other copies of the paper or contacting the website were ignored. Gilani’s copy was doctored to make it appear secret. These and other details of the frantic efforts of the prosecution, and the officials behind it, to frame Gilani are detailed in his book, My Days in Prison. Fortunately, the patent failure of justice became impossible to justify and he was released on January 13, 2003. But for the influential friends who pursued his case, he may still have been in jail. The maximum sentence prescribed for an offence under the Official Secrets Act is 14 years.
I recall Gilani’s case because My Days in Prison indicates why the sentencing of Mohammad Afzal Guru to death by hanging has evoked passion and disbelief in the Valley. It documents the devious lengths to which investigative agencies are willing to go to be seen as saviours of the nation. Kashmir is familiar with stories of people being framed, of militants claimed killed by the security forces turning out to be innocent civilians, of young men disappearing without trace. Suspicions are reinforced when it is found that in Delhi, intelligence agencies are not above fabricating or distorting evidence to get credit for catching persons painted as threats to national security. In Afzal and Gilani’s cases, evidence of fabrication surfaced during hearings.
With stories concerning national security certain to get headlines, intelligence agencies try to exploit mediapersons to substantiate their charges and embarrass the defence. Hints are dropped about activities that further damage the suspect’s reputation or weaken his case. In the Gilani case, a newspaper reported that he had confessed his guilt, which he had not. In the Guru case, his counsel was quoted as suggesting that he preferred death by lethal injection to hanging, an implicit admission of guilt. He denied admitting any such preference. Intelligence personnel are keen on publicity. Arrangements to be filmed or photographed with a ‘catch’ are part of the routine; presumably with an eye on a reward.
Gilani’s account of his ordeal is detailed and credible. It contains names and designations. A copy of Afzal’s letter to his lawyer from jail has been circulated. It makes more painful reading, with descriptions of torture and extortion, but does not have the imprimatur of a published document. Even so, Afzal’s account of inadequate facilities for defence, the circumstantial nature of the evidence and other trial inadequacies seem sufficient to provide the scintilla of doubt about his guilt required to merit presidential clemency. It will be too late to make amends if evidence to the contrary is found after he has been hanged.
Justice must be seen to have been done especially in a case involving an attack on Parliament House. The Supreme Court did not find any evidence in the charge that Guru was a member of a terrorist gang or organisation. He was not directly involved in the attack or the planning, which was masterminded by three persons in Pakistan. Even if guilty as a conspirator, the view taken by the court raises more questions than it answers. The following is an extract from the judgment: “The incident which resulted in heavy casualties, has shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender. The challenge to the unity, integrity and sovereignty of India by these acts of terrorists and conspirators can only be compensated by giving the maximum punishment to the person who is proved to be a conspirator in this treacherous act. The appellant, who is a surrendered militant and who was bent upon repeating the acts of treason against the nation, is a menace to the society [and] should become extinct. Accordingly, we uphold the death sentence.”
Ajit Bhattacharjea is a former Director,Press Institute of India