“I Was Certain I Would Be Hanged One Day Like Guru”: The Arrest, Torture, Incarceration and Acquittal of Delhi Bomb Blast Accused Mohammad Fazili

Two days after he returned home, Fazili said his bedridden mother ran out of the house when guests knocked on their door at around 10.30 pm. “When my sister saw her running to the gate, she held her. My mother shouted and wept that she won’t let the police take away her son again.” Umer Asif/Pacific Press/LightRocket /Getty Images
23 March, 2017

As he sat on the floor leaning against the wall, Mohammad Hussain Fazili’s wary expression revealed the uneasiness he felt in sitting with me—a stranger—to talk about his arrest, incarceration and acquittal in the case of the 2005 serial bomb blasts in Delhi. I had arrived at Fazili’s house on the afternoon of 8 March 2017, unannounced. I walked past several rows of concrete two-storey houses in Srinagar’s Soura neighbourhood before I reached one constructed with mud and timber. “Is this the house of Mohammad Hussain Fazili?” I asked a lanky young man standing in the balcony on the first floor. He asked me to identify myself and the purpose of my visit, and then nodded at me, directing me inside. An old man with a neatly trimmed beard, who I later learnt was Fazili’s father, stood at the entrance to the house. He studied me carefully, before telling me to enter the guest room. Fazili followed me into the room. Although Fazili seemed suspicious of me in the beginning, he was considerably warmer once I showed him my press credentials. He said with a wry smile, “My family is always worried about me since I was set free. They inspect every visitor before letting me meet them.” He added, “Haadsa hi aisa hua ki unko kissi pe bharosa hi na raha”—The tragedy was such that they no longer trust anyone.

On 29 October 2005, a series of three blasts in Delhi killed 67 people and injured over 200 others. Less than a month later, on 21 November, Fazili was arrested from his house in relation with the blasts. As purported evidence, the police relied heavily upon a phone recovered from Fazili, which they alleged was used to hatch the conspiracy. After serving more than 11 years in prison during the trial of the case, Fazili, now a 42-year-old man, and Mohammad Rafiq Shah, one of the two other accused persons, were acquitted of all charges on 16 February 2017. Tariq Ahmad Dar, the third accused, was convicted for offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and sentenced to imprisonment for 10 years, but was released because he had already spent more than 10 years in prison. In the judgment of the case, Reetesh Singh, an additional sessions judge in the Patiala House courts complex, in Delhi, noted that there was no evidence or witnesses linking Fazili and Shah to Dar. The judgment also stated that Shah was in Kashmir University on the day of the blasts, and that the mobile phone recovered from Fazili had only been used twice—for mobile recharges.

Before his arrest, Fazili lived with his family, which then comprised his parents, and three brothers, who lived in the house, and a sister, who was married and lived with her husband. Although his father and brother were earning members of the family, they were also dependent on Fazili, who used to weave and sell shawls. That cold November evening in 2005, Fazili told me, he was stacking shawls in the kitchen of his house. His family had finished dinner and was watching a news bulletin about a Kashmiri man who had been arrested by the Delhi police in relation to the bomb-blast case. Within minutes, he recounted, someone knocked on their door while others had entered the house compound by scaling the gate. “Those unknown men entered our house and asked us to stand up. I was separated from my family and taken to another room of my house and asked if I had been to Delhi or telephoned anyone,” he said. While the police officers who entered the house were in plain clothes, there were officers outside in uniform. “I answered that I have been to Delhi once in my childhood before 1990’s.” Fazili was forcibly taken into their vehicle, and the police team—which Fazili later learnt was the Delhi Police Special Cell—assured his family that their son would return after “investigations.”

Fazili told me he was taken to Srinagar Air Cargo—an infamous interrogationcentre, which was allegedly converted into a cyber-police station in 2012. After being interrogated there for 24 hours, he was blindfolded and flown to Delhi, where he was taken to the Special Cell office at Lodhi Road. In the judgment, the judge reprimanded the Delhi Police for not producing Fazili before a magistrate in Srinagar within 24 hours of his arrest, as is mandated by law. Fazili described the torture that he endured for a fortnight in Delhi in graphic detail: “One end of a water pipe was inserted in my mouth while the other was put in a commode. Male private parts were inserted in my mouth and a pig was smeared on my body. Electric shocks were applied to my body and rats were put in my trousers. I felt like I was in hell.” His eyes began to tear up as he spoke. “I leave my food when those scenes return to my mind,” he said.

According to Fazili, the interrogators repeatedly questioned him about a phone call he made to Delhi, days before his arrest. He told them that he had made the call to his client, a Kashmiri man based in Delhi who dealt with handicrafts exports. Fazili told the interrogators that he had sold the client some shawls and he had called him about the pending payment for it. “But they did not trust me and kept on torturing me,” he said. “On the phone, I requested him to send the pending payment for my shawls as Eid was ahead. I also told him I had in my possession a banned Shahtoosh shawl if he wanted it.” The client told him that Kashmiris were not moving out freely in the aftermath of the blasts and requested him to bear with the delay in payment for some time. A few days later, he called Fazili and disconnected the phone without speaking to him, but Fazili heard the client telling someone in background, “Yahi woh number hain”—This is that number.

A Shahtoosh shawl is made from the wool of the Tibetan antelope and is banned in Kashmir under the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act. Fazili told me that at the time of his arrest, he suspected that he was arrested in relation to his conversation about the banned Shahtoosh shawl. These suspicions were reinforced when Fazili, concerned by the nature of the last phone call, visited the client’s family in Srinagar on 20 November, one day before he was arrested. He learnt from the client’s children that the Special Cell had taken their father into custody. “The next day, a man wearing a helmet visited me at home and inquired about shawls. But that man was inexperienced and did not know anything about my profession. It raised my doubts,” Fazili told me. Later that evening, he was arrested from his house.

After a fortnight under custody of the Delhi Police Special Cell at Lodhi, Fazili was sent to Tihar jail. “On my first day in Tihar jail, I told the inmates that I was booked for possessing a Shahtoosh shawl. But a jail staffer rebuked me for lying and announced to the other prisoners that I was booked for setting off the bomb blasts,” he said. Fazili told me that the other prisoners, who had treated him warmly so far, began to treat him with cruelty after gaining this knowledge. “I was forced to eat my food while sitting on the latrine amid the stench, and made to clean the toilet block of the Mulahiza ward”—observation ward—“with my bare hands and legs. For two months I had to sweep a one-and-a-half kilometer stretch of compound with a broom before I was shifted to another ward,” he said.

After Mohammad Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri man who was convicted in the 2001 terrorist attack on the Parliament, was secretly hanged on 9 February 2013, Fazili felt certain that he too would die in jail. “I was certain I would be hanged one day like Guru as well.” But in February 2017, Reetesh Singh acquitted him of all charges.

Fazili criticised the judicial system that made his parents suffer for more than a decade. According to him, more than the tough circumstances in prison, he was unable to bear staying away from his family. “Internally, it killed me. I could not see a single member of my family for 11 years as they could not afford the travel costs,” he said.

Fazili continued, “I am pained to see my old and ailing parents. They aged because of depression and trauma. They suffered due to my incarceration. I could not recognise my mother when I stepped into the house first time. I asked my sister, ‘Who is that old budiya?’” His mother has been on medication for depression ever since his arrest, he told me. Fazili’s sister-in-law, who requested not to be identified, told me that one day, in November 2015, his mother came to believe that Fazili would be released soon, which made her grow restless for days. When good news did not come her way, she said, Fazili’s mother again fell into depression. “In the next two-three days, my mother-in-law suffered a hemorrhage and was moved to a hospital. Since then, she is bedridden,” she said.

Two days after he reached his home, Fazili said his bedridden mother ran out of the house when guests knocked on their door at around 10.30 pm. “When my sister saw her running to the gate, she held her. My mother shouted and wept that she won’t let the police take away her son again,” he said. His father, Ghulam Rasool Fazili, expressed his despair about his son’s incarceration. “I know my son faced injustice. But who will grant us justice?” “Justice is booking those who jailed my innocent son,” Rasool added, his gaze riveted on his son’s face.

SAR Geelani, the president of the Community of Political Prisoners—a voluntary group that provides legal aid to political prisoners, and which provided legal aid to Fazili, echoed Rasool’s words. “The investigating agency should have been held responsible for booking an innocent person. Releasing an innocent person is one part of the justice. The other is booking those who spoiled Fazili’s life,” Geelani told me, when I spoke to him on the phone on 10 March 2017.

Formerly a professor of Arabic at Delhi University, Geelani was sentenced to death for his alleged role in the terrorist attack on the Parliament, by the trial court in December 2002. He spent 18 months in Tihar jail before the Delhi High Court acquitted him of all charges in December 2003. According to Geelani, the Special Cell “enjoys impunity” and “has destroyed the lives of many Kashmiris.” “None of the police officers have been punished for it,” he added. He claimed that there was a trend to arrest Kashmiris before Independence Day and Republic day, before adding that “for some time, this trend has stopped now.” According to a report published in The Telegraph in August 2009, between January 2000 and 2009, the Delhi Police Special Cell arrested 29 alleged terrorists in the run-up to Independence Day and Republic Day, many of them Kashmiris.

The Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association—a collective of university teachers formed in the aftermath of the Batla House encounter in 2008—released a report in 2012 titled, Framed, Damned, Acquitted: Dossiers of a Very Special Cell, about the Delhi Police Special Cell. The report studied 16 cases in which persons arrested by the Special Cell and accused of being operatives of various terrorist organisations, were eventually acquitted by the courts because of a lack and tampering of evidence by the police. The report states that the 16 cases mentioned in the report “are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg, and simply indicative of the extent of the malaise affecting our policing and criminal justice system.” A majority of the cases in the report were of Kashmiris accused for their involvement in terror attacks. The first case involving a Kashmiri was from 1992, whereas the most recent one was from 2007.

Despite many wrongful imprisonments, no Kashmiri has challenged their imprisonment in courts by seeking compensation for lost years, and prosecution of the investigating agency. Even Fazili is also not willing to file a case. “Jaan bache laakhon paaye”—My life being saved is worth lakhs, Fazili said with a big smile.

As I was leaving the house, two smiling kids—Fazili’s niece and nephew—returned from their school amid rains. “My family had told these kids I am doing business in Delhi,” Fazili told me. “Now when they see rush of visitors here, they get surprised and ask, is it my birthday?” He added, “Yes, 16 February 2017, the day I was released, is my new birthday.”