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Geelani made a scapegoat: Amnesty International

Abdur Rehman Geelani, an Arabic lecturer at Delhi University was arrested on December 14, 2001, the day after a massive terrorist attack on Indian Parliament. Police took him away to a secluded farm house where they allegedly abused and threatened him with dire consequences if he did not confess to his involvement in the attack on Parliament. He was beaten up and hung upside down in the presence of senior police officers. Despite his refusal to accept what the police said, he was forced to sign some blank papers. 

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Irene Khan in an open letter to Law Minister Jana Krishnamurthi recently requested fair trial of the accused. Copies of the letter were sent to Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani and Chairman of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Justice Verma. India as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is bound to observe international standards of fair trial. Even minimum safeguards provided in Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which itself is a defective piece of legislation, were not observed during the pre-trial proceedings of Abdur Rehman Geelani and other accused. 

Amnesty which has especially taken up the case of Abdur Rehman Geelani points out that the unprecedented fast pace at which the trial is being conducted may violate the defendants` right to present a full defence. The accused my be hanged if found guilty of the crimes (Amnesty International opposes death penalty), Amnesty writes Human rights protection in cases related to terrorism is often relegated to second position. Persons accused of violent political acts have equal rights to enjoy equality and protection before law as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.

Geelani, is one of the four persons charged with attack on Parliament along with Mohammad Afzal, Shaukat Hussain Guru and his wife Navjot Sandhu, alias Ahsan Guru. Geelani and three others are the first to be tried under POTA. Scores of other cases can be brought under this law after the trial of these people. The pre-trial period of the accused witnessed a range of abuses, says Amnesty. 

Section 52 of POTA allows preparation of a custody memo to record relevant dates and time of custody. The official record of the arrest of Geelani is faulty. The record shows that he was arrested on December 15, 2001. In fact, he was arrested a day earlier. After arrest he was allegedly taken to an unknown place where he was tortured, beaten up and hanged upside down and subjected to verbal abuse. Geelani’s right to not being tortured was flouted by taking him to an unknown place of detention and showing wrong date of arrest.

One of the drawbacks of the legislation is that it allows confessions made in custody as evidence in court. However, Section 32 (4) of POTA provides that an arrested person should be brought before a magistrate within 48 hours after he had made confession about his crime. Section 32 (5) of POTA provides that a detained person can report to the magistrate if subjected to torture. Geelani along with other accused was brought before the Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (ACMM) on December 22, 2001 along with a police inspector. The judge asked the accused if they had been subjected to torture. The presence of police was intimidating enough to keep their mouth shut about the maltreatment. The chargesheet wrongly says that Geelani was brought before Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate alone and no police officer was with him, the Amnesty letter says. 

Geelani filed an application in the court of Additional Sessions Judge on May 31, 2002 requesting before charges being framed against him the discrepancies in the chargesheet should be done away with. His application was placed on record but his case was not considered. On June 4, 2002, without paying any heed to his request, charges were framed against him.

There is little evidence to implicate Geelani. The chargesheet states that his phone number was found on the mobile phone of the main accused and Geelani was heard commenting on the attack on the Parliament in a tapped telephonic conversation. Human rights activists in India have publicly expressed concern that the available evidence does not warrant the serious criminal charges brought against Geelani and a trial under anti-terrorist law. These are not recognisable criminal offences under Indian law, Amnesty writes.

The media coverage of the arrest and pre-trail proceedings of Geelani have been prejudiced. The media presented him as guilty even before the trial had begun. Such media campaign could influence the judges. Gleenai’s right to prove his innocence may suffer a setback as required by Article 14 (2) of the ICCPR. According to media reports Geelani had bought a house in New Delhi with unaccounted for money (Hindustan Times), indoctrinated students in terrorism (Hindustan Times, The Hindu, December 17, 2001)and participated in the activities of Students Islamic Movement of India (The Times of India, December 17, 2001). Geelani did not make any confessional statement admitting his guilt but reports appeared in media quoting him confessing the crime (Hindustan Times, December 21, Sunday Times, December 23, 2001). Human rights activists in India have pointed out that these allegations brought against Geelani are untrue.

On December 21, 2001 police paraded the four accused before the press. The press conference was broadcast on national television. During the press conference only Afzal was allowed to speak. Afzal reportedly admitted having been behind the attack on Parliament. Parading the accused before media and forcing them to incriminate themselves violate their right to be presumed innocent until convicted according to law after fair proceedings. These rights are provided by Articles 14 (2) and 14 (3)g of the ICCPR respectively, says the letter. Interestingly, Afzal filed a statement in court on July 2, 2002 withdrawing his confessional statement which he declared was written by the Deputy Commissioner of Police. 

In these cases hearings will be conducted in great haste and may violate the defendants` rights to present a full defence. On July 8, 2002, 11 witnesses were to be heard. Within two weeks 180 witnesses had to be heard. Such speed is unprecedented in judicial proceedings in India and may seriously violate the right of the defendants, says Amnesty.

In the early days of his detention, Geelani had exhibited apprehension that he might be killed with the connivance of prison authorities. Geelani was held in solitary confinement in Delhi `s Tihar jail. He was not allowed to walk in the open air and was denied other facilities which other prisoners enjoyed. However, most of the restrictions were withdrawn when Geelani filed an application to the POTA judge.

Abdur Rehman Geelani`s fears came true on August 19. He was attacked with a razor blade by a fellow inmate. Fortunately, two other inmates came to his rescue. In an application to special judge S N Dhingra Geelinani`s lawyer Seema Gulati has requested security for his client. The application mentions that the jail authorities made no attempt to save him, said media reports. 

Human rights groups in India and abroad have raised concern about the defects of POTA. The Union Cabinet approved POTO on October 15, 2001. This law gives substantial powers to the police and executive to fight terrorism. Civil society, human rights, civil liberty organisations, minority groups and opposition parties were not consulted before promulgation of the ordinance. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had also criticised the ordinance. Scores of cases have been registered under POTA, most of them against Kashmiris. Several petitions challenging POTA are pending in the Supreme Court. It has been shown violating human rights as the right to liberty, security, freedom from torture, fair trial and the freedom of expression, association and redressal guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, Indian statutory laws and international human rights commitments undertaken by India, says the human rights watchdog.

Several provisions of POTA undermine the principle of presumption of innocence. Section 4 of the POTA under which Geelani was charged has the provision that if a person is found in unauthorised possession of explosives, such possession should be automatically connected with "terrorist acts". Amnesty feels that the possession of a weapon or of an explosive substance cannot imply the involvement of its owner in the offence unless his crime is proved by the prosecution. Section 49 (6) and (7) of the Act provides that no person accused of an offence should be released on bail unless the public prosecutor has been given an opportunity to oppose the application. If the public prosecutor opposes the bail, it should not be granted unless "the court is satisfied that there are grounds for believing that the accused is not guilty of committing such offence." Thus Section 49 (6) and (7) makes granting of bail dependent on a prima facie assessment of guilt or innocence by the court. Failure of the court granting bail is assumed as an assumption of guilt. All courts must conduct trials without previously having formed an opinion on the guilt or innocence of the accused, says Amnesty.

Any kind of support to a terrorist organisation has been made an offence in POTA. Amnesty feels that support may not include any encouragement to commit violent and criminal acts. On the contrary, support may include the peaceful, private discussion of political ideas. This Act violates the right to the freedom of expression established by Article 19 of the ICCPR. For legal certainty, prohibited acts must be set apart as criminal offences so that people can modify their behaviour or know whether their behaviour is lawful or not. 

The Section 32 of POTA allows confessions made to a police officer during trial admissible. This provision subverts standards for assessing evidence set by Indian statutory law and Indian Evidence Act which excludes such confessions from evidence at trial, Amnesty adds.

¯ M. Mazharul Haque 

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