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Published in the 1-15 Aug 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

The terror of POTA released

Ram Jethmalani  releasing The Terror of POTAMumbai: 'The terror of POTA' - an extensive all-India report of the People's Tribunal on POTA (Prevention Of Terrorism Act) and Other Security Legislations was released by Justice Suresh Hosbet in the presence of filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, human rights activists Teesta Setalvad, human rights lawyer P Sebastian and eminent city lawyer Majeed Memon, in Mumbai on Thursday evening in the presence of the city media. The tribunal report, which is published in a book format, was simultaneously released in New Delhi in the presence of noted criminal lawyer Ram Jethmalani and writer-activist Arundhati Roy also.

The 600-page book is an outcome of statements recorded and documented from over 200 victims of abuse from the gross misuse of POTA from all over India by a jury consisting Ram Jethmalani, Arundhati Roy, former chairpersons of National Commission for Women, Syeda Hamid and Mohini Giri, and Justices Hosbet Suresh and DK Basu on March 13 -14, 2004 in New Delhi. The book also makes essential recommendations to the government vis--vis the draconian law and many other related social problems, which are an outcome from the implementation of this law.

Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt said, "POTA must be repealed with immediate retrospective effect as it has caused enormous harm. People behind bars have found no respite and we need to be firmly entrenched in our position." He seemed furious with the media when he said, " When acts of brutality take place in Iraq, they create headlines, but when it happens to our own people, in our backyard, we don't bring this piece of information to the forefront." He vociferously said, " Extra-ordinary powers have been instituted with the police force in the country and POTA has failed to serve its purpose."

A victim's father came on the podium and narrated the hardships he has to go through. Nasir Mullah has two of his sons arrested under POTA. His son was kept for nine days in custody - three days in the Crime Branch, where confessions were extracted from him and six days in police custody. At the end of this brutality they found no evidence against him. The younger son was arrested for clicking a photograph in court and arrested under the terrorism law. The police also beat up his son mercilessly with the butts of their rifles for offering a bottle of water to his brother in police custody. 

His son was also slapped with rioting cases, which had taken place a few years back in Colaba. The father said this was an act of vendetta. He fervently appealed to the eminent personalities on the podium, "You organize such tribunals, give opportunities to the victims to speak about their trials and tribulations, and we get to speak about the many acts of brutality inflicted on us. But what happens next? We are still victimized, when we speak to the media. We must be protected. 26 people from my community have been arrested along with my son. You will be stunned if I had to share everything that I had to go through."

He said, "I have raised my voice against the atrocities of the police. I am being made a target." He pleaded with the media, " I want your help. I am a small person, can't fight a mighty powerful state." His courage was unwavering. His resilience and power to fight is commendable, especially when he said in his own words, "everything has been shattered". He praised Teesta Setalvad immensely for being his pillar of strength and for being there with him during the endless rounds of courts and dealing with the long arm of the law and judiciary.

While releasing the report, Justice Hosbet Suresh rightly said, " A law like POTA justifies what the police do." About 3,000 people have been victims of POTA. No bail is given to the arrested. He said, " A prosecutor is never kind and objective. Never. There is no such thing as free and fair atmosphere at the police station. The police want a 'harsh law' - what is harsh law? Cutting hands or chopping off noses is harsh law?" As he said, and it is indeed sad, that society brands a person arrested as a criminal. He said, " This is fundamentally wrong. Till you are proved guilty, you are innocent." And hence one must exercise caution before moulding people into certain stereotypes.

What purpose will this tribunal serve? There was apprehension among the victims like Nasir Mullah. Justice Hosbet Suresh said, " First, the tribunal will help expose to the people what had happened. Second, it will help build public opinion. And third, to find out what really happened."

Teesta Setalvad, co-editor of Communalism Combat and activist-journalist was highly critical of the media and she was rightly justified in saying so. She said, " The media is losing its critiquing abilities. They write what is dished out to them. The media needs to look on the other side. Getting a police version of the story and intelligence reports is not enough. Media needs to play its watchdog role more seriously." She was sharp, she was eloquent and she was to the point, when she said, " In the name of nationalism and sovereignty, we have witnessed the brutalization of our society." She raised a very pertinent question. She asked, " How can we compensate for a person who has been arrested under POTA without any conviction?" 

Majeed Memon, a noted city lawyer, said, "You will be embarrassed when the final verdict of Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993 is declared. We will have no face to show to our society. We will have to hang our heads in shame. 36 people are still languishing in jails for the past 10 years." He further elaborated on the victimization of the minorities. Out of 247 arrested under POTA in the Gujarat carnage, 246 belong to the Muslim community.

In May 2004, under the National Common Minimum Programme, the new Indian government said, "The UPA has been concerned with the manner in which POTA has been grossly misused in the past two years. There will be no compromise in the fight against terrorism. But given the abuse of POTA that has taken place, the UPA government will repeal it, while existing laws are enforced strictly." We can only hope the new government takes this statement seriously and repeal this draconian law soon.

Summary of recommendations made by the People's Tribunal

  • Repeal - POTA, and TADA before that, have not deterred terrorist activity. Instead, the weakest sections of our society have borne the brunt of state brutality sanctioned by security legislation.

  • Accountability - POTA, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 and similar legislation have given the police and paramilitary forces the impression that they are above the law. They must be systematically disabused of this impression. They must be made accountable for their actions.

  • Juveniles - Should only be subject to the Juvenile Justice Act, never to any security / terrorist legislation.

  • Freedom of Speech and Expression - No statute should have a chilling effect on the exercise of the right to freedom of speech and expression. POTA and kindred laws have had just that effect.

  • Political Vendetta - The draconian provisions of the Act lend themselves to use against political opponents as evidenced in Tamil Nadu.

  • Compensation and Reparation - While repealing these laws, the state must acknowledge its mistakes and at a minimum pay the victims compensation.

  • Initiate Peace Talks - Conflicts arising from peoples' legitimate aspirations must be resolved politically and not be treated as a law and order situation to be repressed through the use of security legislation. (AFMI News Briefs)

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