Indian Police Accused Of Using Undue Force On Terror Suspects

One of the accused in the Ahmedabad bomb blasts, wearing a black hood, is produced in court last month. The July bombings killed scores.
One of the accused in the Ahmedabad bomb blasts, wearing a black hood, is produced in court last month. The July bombings killed scores. (By Ajit Solanki -- Associated Press)
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 29, 2008

HYDERABAD, India -- A week after two bombs rocked an amusement park and a restaurant here in September 2007, plainclothes policemen barged into the home of Abdul Raheem, an auto-rickshaw driver. Throwing a black cloth over his face, they shoved him into their vehicle.

"I kept asking them if I had jumped a red light by mistake or parked my auto-rickshaw at the wrong spot. I had no idea they were picking me up for the bomb blasts," said Raheem, 27, a bearded man with a thick mop of oiled hair.

For three days, the police questioned him nonstop: Had he driven the bombers to the scene? Had he heard suspicious conversations among passenger? They beat him with straps made from truck tires, he said, and "tied my ankles . . . and gave me electric shocks all over my body."

In the end, authorities found no evidence to charge him in the bombings but kept him in jail for six months on unrelated allegations of distributing DVDs of the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat state and possessing "jihadi literature."

In the past three years, 12 Indian cities have been hit by bombs in crowded places. About 580 people have died. Police have secured no convictions in the attacks, but they have arrested and reportedly roughed up countless people during their investigations, building ill will among many of the country's 130 million Muslims.

In interviews in three states, investigating officers offered a different view, saying the laws prevent them from going after the perpetrators with full force. At the same time, they said, every new bombing triggers a public outcry that officials are soft or incompetent and demands for tough action and stronger anti-terrorism laws.

"The public pressure on the police is enormous. Everybody wants quick results, and nobody has patience. The TV news channels question the police every day," said Shailendra Srivastava, inspector general of police in the central Indian city of Bhopal, who has interrogated some alleged members of a banned group called the Students Islamic Movement of India, or SIMI. His city is on a publicly announced hit list of a new group called the Indian Mujahideen, which has asserted responsibility for the recent bombings in Jaipur, Ahmedabad and New Delhi.

"But how can we crack down on the supporters and sympathizers of these groups?" he said. "The various human rights and minority rights groups are watching every step and questioning the way we police, detain, interrogate. It is very difficult."

In Hyderabad, police have detained about 100 youths in the past year and formally arrested 28. "But we have not charged a single person in the bombings," said B. Prasad Rao, the city's police chief. "We examined many men but could not make much headway. We only have some vague leads. Our intelligence network in the Muslim community is weak." He denied that detainees have been tortured. "Maybe they were examined for a longer time," he said. "The police were under tremendous pressure."

Families of the suspects say that, charges or not, their sons' reputations are permanently scarred from having their faces and names featured in newspapers and on television. About two dozen men have emerged from detention since February, and many are questioning the police in public hearings.

"The police in Hyderabad have been acting with total impunity and no accountability, resorting to illegal detention, torture and intimidation," said Lateef Mohammad Khan, a human rights lawyer who represents the youths. "There is a lot of anger in the society, which strengthens extremist groups. I am not saying these boys are innocent, but I want the police to stop using extralegal measures. Just follow the law of the land."

Despite all their work, the police have yet to identify a theme or group that weaves the bombings together.

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