Death for Kasab was expected, but the acquittal of his ‘Indian contacts’ punches holes in the police story, says Rana Ayyub
WHEN SPECIAL Judge ML Tahilyani acquitted Fahim Ansari and Sabauddin Ahmed of culpability in the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks captured live on TV, most reporters were already chasing the government lawyer who secured a conviction for the lone Pakistani terrorist, Ajmal Kasab. Only a few policemen stood by the families of those who had been acquitted.
Inside the fortress-like courtroom in the Arthur Road jail, Ansari’s veiled 32- year-old wife, Yasmin, offered a prayer as the judge lambasted the police for accusing the two Indians without any evidence. For one-and-a-half years, Yasmin had travelled to the court every day, leaving her eight-year-old daughter home so as to not miss a single day of the trial.
Part of her prayer would have been in the memory of city lawyer Shahid Azmi, who had defended her husband in the case until he was gunned down in his office on February 11. It was Azmi’s cross-examination of the prosecution witnesses that exposed the falsehood of the case against the two. TEHELKA’s was a lone voice that had throughout questioned the charges against them.
The acquittal has come as a big blow to Mumbai Police, which claimed it had a watertight case in its 12,850-page charge sheet against the two accused. But the case against Ansari and Ahmed fell not only due to the shoddy investigation, but also due to the contradictions in the theories of the investigating agencies.
It may be recalled that both Ansari and Ahmed were already in the custody of the Special Task Force (STF) of Uttar Pradesh Police when the Mumbai attacks occurred. The STF had charged them with attacking a camp of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in January 2008 in which seven soldiers were killed.
Police claimed that Ansari, a class 10 dropout, idolised Osama bin Laden and had a “Jihadi mindset”. They said they found a hand-drawn map of Mumbai on him when they arrested him from a bus stop in Rampur town in February 2008.
They claimed Ansari first came in contact with the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Dubai in 2004, where he worked at a press. He then reportedly travelled to Pakistan on a fake passport to meet LeT operatives, who asked him to check out various locations in Mumbai. Police said Ansari did that between November and December 2007.
But Ansari’s family denies all this. They say Fahim had returned from Dubai in 2007 and was working in Mumbai with his brothers in their envelope-making factory. After a quarrel, the brothers split. He then travelled to Uttar Pradesh (UP) to scout for jobs. “One morning, we came to know that he had been arrested on charges of being a terrorist,” says Yasmin.
Yasmin next saw her husband in early 2008 when the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) of Mumbai Police brought him to the city. Crucially, they sent him back to UP at that time. Asks Yasmin: “If he had indeed done a reconnaissance of various installations in Mumbai, why did the ATS let him go then, only to implicate him after the November 2008 attacks?”
Lucknow-based Mohammad Shoaib, Ansari’s lawyer in the CRPF attack case, says that the UP police, too, haven’t substantiated their claim that Ansari was leaving Rampur, UP, for Mumbai to collect weapons when they arrested him. Police also charged him with contacting Nepal’s LeT. Shoaib dismisses this as nonsense: “Thousands of young people from Bihar and UP go job-hunting to Nepal every year. Is going to Nepal a crime?”
The case of the UP Police against the other accused, Sabauddin Ahmed‚ too, is on thin ice. His father, Shabbir Ahmed, is a village sarpanch in Bihar’s Madhubani district. After school, he left for UP to enrol at Aligarh Muslim University.
‘IF THE MAP WAS FOUND IN THE POCKET OF A SLAIN TERRORIST, WHY WASN’T IT SOILED OR BLOODSTAINED?’ ASKS FAHIM ANSARI’S LAWYER
UP Police, without any independent witnesses, claim that Ahmed connected with LeT operatives at Aligarh. He had taken an admission test for a business management course at a Bengaluru college in 2005 but failed to qualify. They added that the LeT sponsored his education, and he flaunted the money to earn friends. They also claimed that Ahmed was LeT’s linkman for Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, in Nepal.
As with Ansari, Mumbai Police also accused Ahmed of being a co-conspirator in the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Ahmed’s lawyer, Ejaz Nakvi, says that the police’s chargesheet was “strewn with lies”, which helped him win the case. “They say they arrested Ahmed from UP. In truth, he was picked up from Delhi where he was job-hunting,” Nakvi says.
Nakvi says Ahmed’s only fault was that he once phoned a friend named Abdul Aziz who, unknown to him, was an LeT operator in Nepal. As the police kept tabs on Aziz’s phone calls, they zeroed in on Ahmed and arrested him. They conveniently linked his Bengaluru visits in 2004 and 2005 to the terrorist attack on the Indian Institute of Science of 2004 in which one person was killed.
Notwithstanding, the slap on the face of the Mumbai Police, their UP counterparts still claim they have a strong case against Ansari and Ahmed. “We have enough evidence against them for the trial,” said UP STF head, ADG Brij Lal. “We will bring them back over the next two weeks.”
Mumbai Police had claimed that their prime witness, Nooruddin Shaikh — allegedly an acquaintance of Ansari — had met him at a lodge in Nepal and saw him passing on to Ahmed something that allegedly resembled a sketch prepared after doing his reconnaissance in Mumbai. Ahmed reportedly passed on the same sketch to the LeT in Pakistan.
Ansari’s new lawyer, Rajendra Mokashi, laughs at the charge: “If the map reportedly travelled by sea with the terrorists from Pakistan and recovered from the pocket of a slain terrorist, why wasn’t it then soiled or bloodstained even a bit?” The judge accepted the argument and mocked the police, saying that even Google had better maps. He even implied that the evidence and witnesses could have been planted.
The police even failed to prove that Ansari or Shaikh had travelled to Nepal. “Nepal has an international border with India and there is bound to be a registration and entry,” Mokashi says. “Where are the entries in the passport?” The investigating agencies could not even find Bharat Thakur — a Mumbai native at whose lodge the meeting in Nepal supposedly took place. Strangely, the investigating officers didn’t visit Nepal for the probe.
Mumbai Police’s chargesheet also claimed that Ansari adopted the fake identity of Sahil Pawaskar to enrol at a computer training institute at Fort and rent a room at Lamington Road, both in South Mumbai, before the terror attacks. But the police could not produce documents related to either the enrolment or rent. The case against Fahim and Sabauddin suffered big blow when the involvement of David Headley in the recce of the Mumbai attacks — the same charges against the duo — came into picture
‘The evidence against Kasab was everywhere. Police just had to collect it,’ says lawyer YP Singh. ‘Where was the investigation?’
Of course, Mumbai Crime Branch officers are quick to defend their case. “It is unfortunate that the judge chose to overlook certain important facts, but that does not mean that the evidence we presented was not significant enough,” one officer told TEHELKA, refusing to speak on record.
But Ansari’s wife Yasmin claims the police forced him to cook up evidence against himself. “He [Ansari] told me that they were forcing him to draw maps while in jail,” she says. “They threatened him, saying they would implicate his family too if he did not confess to the crime.”
As of now, Mumbai Police weren’t committing if they would appeal against the acquittal at the Bombay High Court, face-saving attempt suggested by Maharashtra Home Minister RR Patil. “My officers worked to the best of their ability. We will decide in some time whether to appeal or not,” he told TEHELKA. Ironically, Patil had to resign as Home Minister after the attacks for the failure of his police in dealing with the attack. He was reinstated after the Congress-NCP returned to power last year.
Legal experts slam Mumbai Police for their inept handling of the case. “Kasab had scattered evidence of his involvement across the sites of the attack. All the Mumbai Police did was to collect them all together. Where was the investigation?” asks IPS officer-turned-lawyer YP Singh. “The police could not put together a single evidence against the two co-accused. Clearly there was pressure to prove local connection of arrests and hence the two were made scapegoats.”
The trial may have ended with Kasab’s conviction — a foregone conclusion anyway. But it has also raised many questions. Mumbai Police insiders are now mockingly asking for a probe into the goof-up to fix responsibility. The trial court’s judgment observes that it is still not clear from police probe which bullets from whose gun killed top cops Hemant Karkare and Vijay Salaskar on November 26, 2008, the night of the attack. Perhaps the judge wasn’t entirely convinced of Kasab’s confession that he killed the two officers.
The judgment could not have come at a worse time for Mumbai Police. A committee set up under former bureaucrat Ram Pradhan slammed the police force for its ugly factionalism. Last year, Police Commissioner Hasan Ghafoor was summarily transferred after giving an interview suggesting that Joint Commissioner of Police Rakesh Maria had avoided the frontline during the terror attack.
Vinita Kamte, the widow of another officer, Ashok Kamte, killed along with Karkare and Salaskar in the attack, also slammed Maria, accusing him of being a coward and not facing the terrorists. Under the circumstances, it may not be in the best interests of Mumbai Police to appeal against the acquittals of Ansari and Ahmed.