Mohammed Haneef Abdul Razak Sheikh says he was
held under India's controversial anti-terrorism law for distributing food to
victims of the anti-Muslim pogrom that swept western Gujarat state two years
All the 287 cases booked under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) in Gujarat
following the violence were aimed at members of the minority community.
Sheikh's wife Yasmeen said that police, finding them away from home, grabbed
hold of Sheikh's brother and dragged him away after abusing other members of
the family and ransacking the premises.
Sheikh was among those who gave testimony earlier this month at a People's
Tribunal organized by the voluntary National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)
and a coalition of other activist groups.
"Over the past two years, POTA has been used against juveniles, old people,
members minority communities, journalists, members of "dalit" (low
Hindu caste) groups, Adivasi (aboriginal) communities, women, political opponents
and those struggling for socio-economic rights," said Colin Gonsalves, one
of the main organizers of the tribunal.
POTA, introduced by India in compliance with a U.N. Security Council resolution
following the Sep. 11 attacks in the United States, has ended up being used
mainly to settle political scores, victimize religious and other minorities,
according to the findings of the "People's Tribunal."
After listening to the testimonies, Ram Jethmalani, lawyer and union law minister
at the time POTA was passed, confessed that he was gravely in error about its
passage in April 2002.
"I supported the enactment of POTA but I did it because it was done in obedience
to the UN Security Council resolution. I regret it now," he said.
Jethmalani said he, like many others, had reposed faith in the honesty of politicians
who said it would never be misused. "Today I have no doubt that it should go
out lock stock and barrel."
Concerns about the misuse of the law have also been aired by politicians and
by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
Others victims from Gujarat state testified that the police invariably made
their arrests late at night, detained relatives of suspects and took away vital
documents necessary to establish credentials.
Habib Bhai Karimi said he was detained for four days merely because his son
Kalim, who was arrested, happened to be friendly with their neighbor, a religious
For his part, Om Prakash, a 10-year-old boy from who was arrested in May 2003
under POTA following the murder of a village headman in northern Uttar Pradesh
state, said his only crime was "being a member of the 'dalit' community."
Many of the cases from Uttar Pradesh had to do with struggles for land rights
rather than terrorism, say critics of the anti-terrorism law.
The bulk of the cases lodged under the anti-terrorism law have come from central
Jharkhand state. A record 3,200 cases have been registered there under POTA,
with several of them involving juveniles and nearly all of them targeted aboriginals
When POTA's passage was being discussed in parliament in 2002, India's Interior
Minister Lal Krishna Advani declared that those who opposed it were being "anti-national."
Advani and the BJP got their way with the law largely because parliament was
then recovering from the shock of the Dec. 13, 2001 aborted attempt by a suicide
squad to blow up the legislative building.
Objections raised by opposition politicians at the time that the law loosely
defined key terms such as "terrorist organization" and what constituted
"support" for such organizations and "proceeds" from giving
such support were easily dismissed.
Long-time complaints that India's criminal procedure code, drawn up during
the repressive colonial period and still largely intact, was marked by deficient
investigation and serious procedural lapses were ignored to produce what many
said was a parallel and more draconian criminal system.
What followed was embarrassing even for the BJP. It had to stand by and watch
while Vaiko (one name), a member of parliament from southern Tamil Nadu state
and a close ally, was picked up under POTA.. Vaiko was incarcerated for making
a speech praising the Sri Lankan militant group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
Vaiko, who leads a local party in the opposition in Tamil Nadu, was released
on bail on Feb. 7, after spending 18 months in jail.
Some of the eight supporters of his party who were incarcerated for similar
durations were present at the People's Tribunal, but were bound by court orders
restricting them from making public statements while on bail.
Gonsalves said the testimonies have greatly helped rising demands to have POTA
repealed and get rid of "half-way measures" such as occasional amendments
and a 'review committee' set up by the government to examine cases of abuse.
"We plan to bring more voices of POTA victims to the forefront and have them
documented so that we can build up a strong case for the repeal of the act,"