On April 13, after spending three years and five months in jail, Nizamudeen finally came home after the Kerala High Court cleared him of terror charge. But when he returned to Panayikkulam in Kerala’s Ernakulam, he was in mourning. While he was in prison, mother and sister had died of cancer.
“I am the only surviving member of my family,” said Nizamudeen, who now 37. “I have lost everyone. They would perhaps have lived longer had I been around.”
Nizamudeen, along with Razik Raheem, Shammas, Ansar and PA Shaduli, was arrested in 2006 for allegedly organising a secret meeting of the banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India in Panayikkulam. The matter attracted wide attention for being the first terrorism case in Kerala to be inquired into by the National Investigation Agency. In 2015, a special NIA court sentenced Ansar and Razik to 14 years in prison for sedition. Shammas, Shaduli and Nizamudeen were given 12 years each under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
Four years later, on April 12, the Kerala High Court acquitted all five men, ruling that there was no evidence against them.
While Nizamudeen returned to a desolate home, Razik, who prefers to be known by his first name, and Shammas were welcomed by hundreds of their townsfolk in Erattupetta, Kottayam.
“We felt very happy when they gave us a rousing reception on our arrival from jail,” said Razik, 41. But the hurt and anger at being wrongly targeted, he added, will take long to overcome. After all, they will never get back the precious years of their lives lost to prison.
Panayikkulam terror case
On August 15, 2006, the Kerala police detained 17 persons for organising a meeting in Panayikkulam, accusing them of speaking against the Indian government and the military, and distributing publications of the Students’ Islamic Movement of India. Twelve of them were let off the next day. The other five spent 64 days in judicial custody before receiving bail. This came to be known as the Panayikkulam terror camp case.
The case went into cold storage for around two years until it was handed over to a special investigation team in 2008. The investigators questioned the accused men again and gathered new evidence. But a day before the special investigation team was to file its chargesheet in 2010, the Kerala government handed over the case to the NIA.
A year later, the NIA filed a chargesheet against 16 persons who it claimed had attended the Panayikkulam meeting. A separate chargesheet was filed with the Juvenile Justice Board against a minor accused. On November 30, 2015, a special NIA court sentenced five of them to lengthy prison terms without parole, acquitting the rest.
But the convicted men approached the Kerala High Court, which acquitted all of them on April 12. The court observed that there was no evidence to show their speeches were seditious. “We are of the view that the prosecution has miserably failed to prove the contents of the impugned speeches,” the court said in its judgement.
The prosecution had accused Razik of declaring, “Indian Army is killing Muslims in Kashmir who are doing jihad against Indian Army in Kashmir. Other Muslims in India are being tortured under laws like TADA against which under the leadership of SIMI we have to fight.”
Ansar was accused of saying, “Whatever we see in India is made by the Britishers. We should move back to the period when Nizams and Mughals were ruling old India and for that you have to fight with SIMI and no one can destroy SIMI.”
While Razik, Shammas and Nizamudeen are now free, Ansar and Shaduli are still in an Indore jail because they have also been accused in cases related to the Jaipur blasts of 2008 and the Wagamon SIMI training camp of 2007.
“We can rejoice fully only after securing their release,” said Razik. “They have been slapped with false charges. We are pinning our hopes on the Indian judiciary to set them free.”
‘Police concocted our speeches’
Razik had been married only four months when he was detained in 2006. He said the Panayikkulam meeting which the police described as a SIMI camp was actually a seminar on the “Role of Muslims in Indian Independence”. It had not even started, he recalled, when the police descended on the venue and asked everyone there to report to the local police station. “The police just concocted our speeches and made false charges against us,” Razik said.
The arrest turned Razik’s life upside down. “I was involved in social work then,” he explained. “Afterwards, my life became all about appearing before police officials, fielding their malicious questions, meeting advocates and praying to God to rescue me from the fabricated case.”
The police also ruined him financially, Razik said. “I started a bag manufacturing unit with two partners in a rented building in Erattupetta,” he said. “But the police told the landlord that I was a terrorist and they should not rent out property to me. The landlord eventually forced us to move. When the police continued playing this dirty game, I opted out of the partnership. It cut a deep hole in my pocket.”
Two years after he was arrested, Razik’s father died. “The case had left a huge scar on him,” he said.
Nizamudeen is struggling to cope with the deaths of his parents and sister. “My father died in 2012, my mother in May 2016,” he said. “Five months later, my sister breathed her last.”
He was allowed to attend his mother’s funeral but not his sister’s, apparently for security reasons. “All of them died in pain because I was framed in a terror case,” Nizamudeen said.
He is convinced that “Islamophobia among Kerala’s police officials” was the main reason for his 13-year ordeal. “If it is not Islamophobia, why did the Kerala police officers cook up charges against us?” he argued. “The communist government too showed its Islamophobia when it handed over the case to the NIA.”
‘Media spread blatant lies’
The acquitted men are also angry with the media for “acting as mouthpieces of the police” and spreading “blatant lies” against them. “Media made our lives miserable by publishing unsubstantiated and imaginative stories,” said Razik, who has a diploma in journalism and a post-graduate degree in Malayalam language and literature.
A day after the five men were arrested, Malayalam newspapers Mangalam and Kerala Kaumudi had reported, quoting anonymous police officials, that they were conspiring to bomb Aluva railway station. “Both newspapers reported the police had seized from us an Aluva railway station map and an India map without Kashmir,” Razik recalled. “They also wrote the police had seized a book called ‘Mass Resistance in Kashmir’ and published by the Institute of Police Research in Pakistan from us. If the police had seized all this material, why did they not submit in court? The newspapers spread blatant lies.”
The media did not even spare his wife, Razik said, portraying her as a “terrorist with international links”.
On October 29, 2006, Kerala Kaumudi reported that Razik’s wife, who was working with the software giant IBM in Bangalore, had close links with Pakistani terrorists, and the police suspected her of helping terrorists use IBM’s servers.
“The police planted the story to show my wife and I were terrorists,” Razik said. “My wife lost her hard-earned, well-paying job, and a promising career, because of irresponsible journalists and media owners. It further damaged our financial situation. She had completed just six months as a software developer with IBM. She had got the job through campus recruitment.”
None of the media houses that “spread lies” against them have published an apology since the High Court’s ruling, Razik complained. “In 2010, the Australian government said sorry to an Indian doctor for wrongly detaining him on terror charges,” he said. “Don’t we deserve to get an apology from the media houses that tarnished our image in public?”
‘It was gross injustice’
While the five men were out on bail, the Kerala police would forcibly take them into custody and question them for hours whenever there was a terror activity in Kerala, Razik said.
After a pipe bomb blast at Ernakulam Collectorate in 2009, the police raided Razik’s home in the dead of night. “They took me away as if I were a seasoned criminal,” he recalled. “The questioning lasted for many hours.”
Nizamudeen was questioned after some shops were gutted in a fire in Kozhikode. “They knew I had nothing to do with the fire as it was evident a short circuit had caused it,” he said. “They were trying to trap me.”
The “special treatment” continued even after they were thrown in prison. Because they were portrayed as dangerous terrorists and charged with sedition, Razik and Nizamudeen said, they faced a tougher time in prison than other inmates. “While murder and rape convicts got parole frequently to visit their families, we were not allowed to step out even once,” Razik complained. “It was gross injustice. For three years and five months, I didn’t visit my home even once.”
Still, they tried to make the best of their circumstances. Razik worked as a prison librarian and helped edit the jail magazine, for which he also wrote a poem titled Swapnam, or dream. “I played a key role in setting up the prison’s music band and radio station,” he said. “I anchored all cultural programmes held inside the prison.”
While in prison, Shammas completed masters’ degrees in sociology and history. Razik did a certificate course in food and nutrition.
Paying a heavy price
Razik, Shammas and Nizamudeen said they have had to spend a fortune on lawyers over the past 13 years. “It was a do-or-die situation,” said Nizamudeen. “I did not think much about money as I just wanted to prove my innocence. It damaged my financial condition.”
Razik said, “The verdict of the NIA court was a rude shock for us. That is why we hired experienced advocates to prove our innocence. We spent a lot of money on them.”