During the nine years he spent in jail for a crime he did not commit, Abdul Wahid Shaikh completed a Master’s degree in English, a course in journalism and the first year of a law degree. But his biggest accomplishment, he believes, is writing a 400-page book about his experiences, to serve as a guide for anyone who gets falsely implicated in a terrorist attack.
In 2006, Shaikh was one of the 13 men arrested by the Maharashtra police for allegedly carrying out the July 11 Mumbai train bomb blasts, which killed 188 people and injured more than 800. Shaikh was specifically accused of using his house to harbour Pakistani terrorists, who then went on to plant bombs in the city’s local trains along with 13 Indian conspirators. Nine years later, in September 2015, 12 of the accused were convicted by a special court in Mumbai. Shaikh alone was acquitted, after the court found no merit in the accusations against him.
After his release, 38-year-old Shaikh slowly began to pick up the threads of his life once again – a life with his wife, his now-teenaged son and daughter and his former job as a science teacher at an Anjuman-e-Islam school. But the trauma of the custodial torture he was put through has not yet left him.
Last week, Shaikh officially released Begunaah Qaidi – Innocent Prisoner – the book he spent ten months writing when he was in Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail. The Urdu book, Shaikh makes clear, is less of an autobiography and more of a guidebook for other innocent prisoners fighting the “police state”.
Nonetheless, the early chapters of the book contain Shaikh’s gut-wrenching accounts of the kind of torture that he and his co-accused were put through for the first three months after their arrest.
Three degrees of torture
“I have been made to suffer all three degrees of torture that the police use to force false confessions out of people,” said Shaikh, speaking to Scroll.in during recess hour at the school where he teaches.
First, he says, the police use verbal abuse, threats and the stripping of clothes as an interrogation technique. “Second degree is when they beat you with belts, force you into hunger or solitary confinement, tie you up and force you to stand for days,” said Shaikh. Third degree involves extreme physical torture including waterboarding, using electric shocks or chemicals on private parts, or forcing the prisoner’s legs into 180-degree splits.
“They also make rape threats towards the wives and sisters of the accused, or molest female relatives in front of you,” said Shaikh, who claims that one of his co-accused was forced to watch police officers molest his sister-in-law. “Through these means, the police managed to get false confessional statements from everyone.”
Shaikh was the only accused at the time who did not end up signing a confessional statement, which he claims was a deliberate “strategy” on the part of the police’s anti-terrorism squad to prove in court that no torture had been involved in the interrogations. However, in the jail cells of various prisons in Maharashtra, Shaikh continued to face intermittent bouts of mental and physical torture till 2008. “At one point they fractured my arm and left me without medication for 15 days,” he said.
Characteristics of a terror accused
Now that he is acquitted and out as a free man, a number of Shaikh’s well-wishers have asked him to file criminal cases against the police for the torture he was put through. But Shaikh does not plan to do that any time soon. “My focus right now is to appeal against the conviction of the other 12 men in this case, because I know they are also innocent,” said Shaikh.
In his book, Shaikh writes about what he believes are the typical characteristics that the police in India look for while making arrests terror attack cases. “First, of course, he has to be a Muslim. They almost never bother to arrest Hindus,” he said. “He also has to be highly qualified, like an engineer, businessman, doctor, post-graduate. They don’t like Muslims becoming successful leaders.”
Also, as in the case of Shaikh himself, the police allegedly look to arrest men who already have some small previous criminal record in their name. In 2001, Shaikh claims he was framed and falsely accused of being a member of the banned extremist outfit, Students Islamic Movement of India. As a result, he was repeatedly questioned by the police in multiple terror attack cases in Mumbai. “I was eventually acquitted in that case in 2012,” he said.
Now, less than two years since his acquittal, Shaikh has already become an activist for the rights of all prisoners accused of false cases, and the 12 remaining men convicted in the train blasts case. Last year, he founded an organisation called Innocence Network, drawing together prominent lawyers, retired judges, activists and filmmakers to fight false arrests. The organisation holds seminars, rallies and people’s tribunals to spread awareness about the ways in which innocent Muslims often get implicated in false cases.
Shaikh is now looking for Hindi and English translators for his book, so that he can reach out to a larger number of readers. “I want to send out three messages through my book,” said Shaikh. “First, that the 7/11 train blasts case is bogus, and the convictions are bogus too. Second, that this nation has become a police state. And third, I want to tell people what exactly they can do if they are ever arrested in a false terror case – how you can resist torture, who you can seek help from within the justice system, and more.”