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

Advani’s terrorism plank falls flat
Ghatkopar accused is free man
By M H Lakdawala

Mumbai: After more than a year in jail, Zaheer Shaikh, an accused in the December 2, 2002 Ghatkopar bomb blast case, is a free man today. A special court absolved him of all charges in a very serious case, which came under the stringent Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota). 

Ghatkopar blast

Ghatkopar blast

While speaking to MG, Zahir Sheikh, said that the Maharashtra government owes an apology to the entire Muslim community in the state. “ Acquittal is wonderful,’’ says Sheikh. ‘‘But the enormity of the moment is yet to sink in.’’ ‘‘I haven’t seen my son in 15 months,’’ Sheikh says.

Soft-spoken and religious, Sheikh is a qualified electronics and telecommunications engineer from JN Engineering College, Aurangabad. He was working as a sales officer with a German firm there when he was picked up on December 23, 2002. Sheikh was one of four people picked up from Parbhani, alongwith Dr Mateen Basit, Muzammil Jamil—both still in custody and charged under POTA—and Khwaja Yunus, who is still missing and allegedly escaped from custody amid claims that he was killed in a false encouter.

"I have heard that Yunus was beaten up and was vomiting blood,’’ he says. He says he’s determined to fight for other blast undertrials. ‘‘I’ve undergone enough pain to understand their trauma."

Thankful for the support of his advocates and friends, Sheikh claims he didn’t even know what POTA was when he was arrested. ‘‘I read about it later, in prison,’’ he says. 

The joy of returning home was marred by some sad news, that of Khwaja Yunus’ father Ayub passing away due to a heart attack in Parbhani recently. ‘‘He’d been so happy at my release. I was going to meet him,’’ Sheikh said.

The Central POTA Review Committee ruled that there was no prima facie evidence linking Sheikh to the December 2002 blast. This left the state government with no option but to set him free. The court observed that the state was bound to accept and act on the POTA Review Committee's recommendation under Section 60 (7) of the act.

"It proves the slipshod way the police conducted its investigation and because of that a man had to remain in prison for so long," said Zahir's advocate Shahid Azmi. Zahir's discharge may have weakened the case against the other three main accused in the case, all of whom have spent more than a year behind bars. Shahid Azmi argued that Zaheer was not connected with the bomb blast in any way.

The prosecution case against Zaheer claimed that he was one of the five partners in the Aurangabad-based company, Pragma Soft, along with Irfan Ahmed Qureshi and Shaikh Muzammil, who had been arrested in the Ghatkopar bomb blast. Police raided the premises of Pragma Soft on December 17, 2003 and seized certain compact disks depicting communal riots in Gujarat.

On the basis of this, the police concluded that the five partners of the company used these CDs to create religious hatred against Hindus specifically, and India in particular!

It is the case of the prosecution that most of the accused held for engineering this blast were working with Pragmasoft Technology and that police recovered compact discs of Jaish-e-Mohammed and a manual of Al-Qaeda from the firm's premises.

Last February, Shaikh deposed before the special court about police brutality. He was even warned by the police not to speak against them. His application for bail was rejected ten times by the special POTA court. 

The order comes close on the heels of a flying visit by the three-member committee of Arun Saharya, former chief justice of Delhi High Court, former DG of Mumbai police Arvind Inamdar and ex-vice chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University Mehmoodur Rehman. The committee had come down to Mumbai to hold a hearing for relatives of the accused and the prosecution. 

The appeals of other four accused in the Ghatkopar blast Mateen, Muzammil, Imran and Altaf, are pending before the review committee. The special POTA court rejected bail applications of all four. Rejecting the bail, Judge AP Bhangale held that the charges against the accused were of a serious nature and the confessions of some of the accused proved prima facie cases against them. The judge also held that the authenticity of the confessions would be decided at the time of trial.

Advocate Majeed Memon, who represented Dr Mateen and others, had contended that some of the discharged accused had owned up responsibility in the Ghatkopar bomb blast case in their alleged “confessions”.Therefore, Dr Mateen, Muzammil, Imran and Altaf cannot be held responsible for it, advocate Memon had argued.

In a related development, a division bench of Bombay High Court has directed the state CID, probing the alleged murder of blast accused Syed Khwaja Yunus, to treat the statement of Dr Abdul Mateen, as a First Information Report and to register a case against all police officers whom Dr Mateen has accused. 
On March 3, the CID arrested suspended assistant inspector Sachin Vaze for the alleged murder of Yunus. Vaze was the officer who, on January 7, 2003, had filed a complaint at Parner police station in Ahmednagar claiming that Yunus had escaped from police custody. Vaze and three other constables were escorting Yunus to Aurangabad at the time.
Dr Abdul Mateen stated that on January 6, 2003, Yunus was beaten up in the lock-up of the Ghatkopar Crime Intelligence Unit. He vomited blood during third degree torture. Mateen was taken to the Powai lock-up after the alleged incident. Thereafter, he never saw Yunus.

Mateen, who is a doctor, told the court that the fact that Yunus vomited blood could only mean that he suffered a cardiac rupture or injury to his lungs, which could result in sudden death.

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