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.
Until last year, officials said groups based in Bangladesh were training Indian Muslims to carry out attacks. But after the bombings in the northern city of Jaipur in May, the Indian Mujahideen started asserting responsibility for the violence. Police are still largely uncertain about the origin and structure of this group.
Police in Gujarat, the scene of bombings in July, pinned all the blame on SIMI and said that group and the Indian Mujahideen were the same. But the New Delhi police investigating the bombings that killed 21 people in the capital Sept. 13 said the Indian Mujahideen is separate, assembling and planting the bombs with peripheral support from SIMI.
There is similar disagreement among police on who the blasts' architects were. In August, the Gujarat police said they had found the "mastermind" of the bombings in that state, a SIMI member known as Abu Basher. A week ago, the New Delhi police said a software engineer named Abdul Suban Tauqeer was the chief conspirator in all the blasts. On Sept. 19, police officers in New Delhi broke into a small apartment in a Muslim neighborhood and gunned down two suspects, including Mohammad Atif, whom they declared the real "mastermind."
"Atif, a 24-year-old graduate student of human rights, coordinated the bombings in at least three Indian cities. He used to go on reconnaissance missions before the blasts," said Karnail Singh, joint commissioner of police in New Delhi. He said authorities were examining the contents of a laptop computer and a memory stick seized from the apartment and are interrogating 13 people suspected of having worked with Atif. "We have the mobile phone with which they shot the clips of blast sites and attached to their e-mails claiming responsibility."
Yet, on Wednesday, police in Mumbai arrested five Indian Mujahideen suspects, one of whom they said was Atif's boss.
The last e-mail from the Indian Mujahideen after the New Delhi blasts ridiculed what it called the "false claims" of police. If officials boast "of arresting masterminds and key terrorists all over India, then which mastermind executed today's attack?" the message said.
For now, the investigation is focusing on the 13 Indian Mujahideen suspects. Police describe them as middle-class, educated and technically savvy young men who led dual lives.
One of them, Zeeshan Ahmed, was a graduate student of business management. His school said he scored high in subjects such as commercial law and organizational behavior. Another was a graduate student in business and had won a gold medal in his undergraduate degree in economics.
Residents and families protested the arrests last Monday and produced school records to argue that the men could not be terrorists.
In Hyderabad, even after Raheem and others are out of jail and fighting their cases in court, the terror tag follows them. "I lost my auto-rickshaw, my fiancee and my honor. Nobody wants to hire me anymore, although I tell them I was not booked for the bombing. Friends have deserted me, relatives don't invite us over anymore," he said. "I carry the stigma all day."