Pune Blast: In the name of the son

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In the rush to produce results, Samad Bhatkal may have become another easy suspect, says Rana Ayyub

SOFT TARGET
The German Bakery in Pune, moments after the blast in February 2010.
Photo : Deepak Salvi

PRECISELY 100 days after the German Bakery blasts in Pune on February 13, came the arrest of a 23-year-old touted to be the man behind the blasts — Samad Bhatkal, whose surname is the same as that of his hometown. Union Home Minister P Chidambaram lauded the Maharashtra ATS for having made a breakthrough in the Pune blasts and apprehending the prime suspect. But a week later, the same minister said, “I wish to impress upon everyone that the arrested person, at this stage, is only a suspect and hence this information should be treated with circumspection.”

An MHA official, speaking on condition of anonymity, admits, “The statement was issued in haste. Somewhere, the ATS goofed up in briefing the home ministry on the real purpose of Samad’s arrest. We cried wolf too soon.” It was this display of ambiguity that emboldened Samad’s mother and uncle to hold a press conference in Mumbai displaying videos of their son participating in a wedding in Bhatkal the day the blasts took place in Pune.

In fact, the Maharashtra ATS’s remand application never once mentioned that it had picked up Samad for his involvement in the German Bakery blasts. Instead, it sought his custody on charges of an arms case from 2009 in central Mumbai, in which three persons had been arrested on charges of possessing illegal firearms — which, according to the police, had be en supplied by one Abdul Samad Bhatkal. Surprisingly, though, all the three arrested, who are alleged to be members of the Chhota Shakeel gang , are already out on bail. Samad was arrested on arrival at Bajpe Airport, Mangalore, after three months with his father in Dubai on a visiting visa . He had left for Dubai on February 25 earlier this year. “Dubai police had also had taken his passport a month ago. Why wasn’t he arrested there? Why were they waiting for him to come to Mangalore to arrest him?” asks Bhatkal’s uncle Yakoob Bhatkal, alleging that his nephew is being implicate d in the case.

What is also significant is the timing of Bhatkal’s arrest in the arms case. If it was a year-old case in which three accused had already been arrested and subsequently released on bail, why did the ATS arrest him at this juncture if there was nothing to show his involvement with the Pune blasts? State Home Minister RR Patil has gone ahead and said categorically that Bhatkal is not a suspect in the Pune blasts . Sources close to the investigation say Bhatkal was arrested only to help the ATS get some leads in the case. One of the investigators told TEHELKA , “It looked like the handiwork of the Indian Mujahideen (IM). We wanted to check if Samad could provide us leads. It was obvious right in the beginning that the boy with the haversack in the CCTV footage obtained after the blasts was not Samad Bhatkal but perhaps Yasin Bhatkal, his brother.” Yasin is one of the alleged masterminds of the IM, the organisation said to be responsible for several blasts in the country since 2006.

“Samad was arrested not — as everybody suggested — because he was a look alike of Yasin but because it was a believed that he could be interrogated on the leads obtaine d by the ATS in the case,” divulged the same source. “We believe d he was in touch with the other Bhatkals although till now he has not led us to his trail.” Bhatkal’s family and lawyer however rebut the allegation that they know anybody called Yasin. Says Yakub, “Samad has an elder brother called Mohammed Ahmed who left in 2004 for Dubai and has lost touch with the family for the last couple of years over a family dispute.” Investigators, though, believe Ahmed is indeed Yasin, who worked in India at the behest of Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal (the two kingpins of the IM) who have only remained an enigma for the state investigating agencies and the ATS .

What is also significant is the timing of Bhatkal’s arrest in the arms case. If it was a year-old case in which three accused had already been arrested and subsequently released on bail, why did the ATS arrest him at this juncture if there was nothing to show his involvement with the Pune blasts? State Home Minister RR Patil has gone ahead and said categorically that Bhatkal is not a suspect in the Pune blasts . Sources close to the investigation say Bhatkal was arrested only to help the ATS get some leads in the case. One of the investigators told TEHELKA , “It looked like the handiwork of the Indian Mujahideen (IM). We wanted to check if Samad could provide us leads. It was obvious right in the beginning that the boy with the haversack in the CCTV footage obtained after the blasts was not Samad Bhatkal but perhaps Yasin Bhatkal, his brother.” Yasin is one of the alleged masterminds of the IM, the organisation said to be responsible for several blasts in the country since 2006.

“Samad was arrested not — as everybody suggested — because he was a look alike of Yasin but because it was a believed that he could be interrogated on the leads obtained by the ATS in the case,” divulged the same source. “We believe d he was in touch with the other Bhatkals although till now he has not led us to his trail.” Bhatkal’s family and lawyer however rebut the allegation that they know anybody called Yasin. Says Yakub, “Samad has an elder brother called Mohammed Ahmed who left in 2004 for Dubai and has lost touch with the family for the last couple of years over a family dispute.” Investigators, though, believe Ahmed is indeed Yasin, who worked in India at the behest of Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal (the two kingpins of the IM) who have only remained an enigma for the state investigating agencies and the ATS .

NAME GAME
Samad (face covered) being produced in court after his arrest.
Photo : Deepak Salvi

With leads in the Pune blast case pointing in contradictory directions , the family of Samad Bhatkal’s family has every reason to be apprehensive as this is not the first time he has been taken into custody and let off without evidence.

“Is this a joke?” asks Rehana , Samad’s mother, recalling past incidents in which her son had been picked up. The Bengaluru police picked him after the July 2008 blasts on suspicion, then found no reason to keep him in custody. At that time too, he was questioned ab out Yasin’s whereabouts. “If they had indeed suspected him, why then did they not keep a tab on his activities since 2008? Why were they waiting for the blasts to take place so that they could arrest him?” asks an angry Yakoob. He seems to be paying the price of being a Bhatkal, says his mother.

ATS officials have confirmed to TEHELKA that Samad had “no knowledge” of the blasts. In fact, a Crime Branch official investigating the IM also reiterated that Samad’s name never cropped up in the year-long investigations.

WHEN CONTACTED, the Bhatkal police too said that none of the state investigating agencies had sought its assistance in getting details on Samad, nor was he asked to keep a vigil on him even after the blasts had taken place. Many believe that Samad was a readymade case for suspicion — questioned by police in an earlier case, visiting Dubai around the same time as the blast, and allegedly a cousin of the mastermind. “Enough to be the ideal suspect in this case,” laughed a police officer from the state.

So where does that leave this cricket crazy boy who left for Dubai in the hope that his father Zaraar Sidibappa could help him find a job? And where does that leave the Pune blast probe in which all the information that has been made public is speculative and contradictory? Now that Samad is no longer in the hands of the Mumbai ATS but in judicial custody, one will only have to wait for answers — or the next faux pas.

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