Wrongly jailed under PSA, detainees return as human rights lawyers

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All eyes stared at Abdul Waheed as he walked into the examination hall, hand-cuffed. A police escort waited outside the hall while he wrote the entrance paper for admission to the Department of Law at the University of Kashmir (KU). 

He had never wanted this for himself — listening to the stories of unlawful detentions in Kashmir since his childhood had made him despise the system, he never thought of being a part of it. But as he sat in the exam, nothing else mattered. “I had to do it,” Waheed recalled, “not for me, but for many boys who were wrongly jailed.”

It was the year 2006 and then a 21-year-old Waheed, detained under Public Safety Act (PSA), was adamant to become a lawyer to fight for himself and then represent the many others that were jailed — they believe wrongly — under the PSA.

Waheed himself said that he was out to buy bakery in the month of Ramzan in December 2005, when he got a call on his mobile phone and summoned to the Zakura Police Station in Srinagar. He was arrested as soon as he presented himself at the police station.

“I was in the Kothibagh police station when I got to know that I was booked under the PSA,” he told The Kashmir Walla. “I wasn’t able to breathe. For two days, I didn’t talk to anyone. It was the first time I was in a jail, and for what?”

In his PSA dossier, the government had accused him of hatching a conspiracy to kill the then Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mufti Mohammad Syeed. “I became numb. I was jailed on a charge I had no idea about,” Waheed recounted his reaction when he learnt about the accusation against him. “The police officers were making false stories in front of me and I could do nothing.”

The son of a school teacher in the government’s service, Waheed was disheartened to learn that he was being shifted to prison. “I had no political approach. I left it all up to Allah,” he said. “Before I was taken, my uncle, a professor at KU, had handed books in my hands and said: ‘You should never leave them. Whatever happens, as we try to secure your release, never leave studies.’”

A torn book and laughs

The PSA was introduced in 1978, initially as a strict punishment to deter timber smugglers. Subsequent governments, however, have used the Act, which allows for imprisonment up to two years without a judicial trial, into a tool to crush dissent — deeming it prejudicial to “the security of the state or the maintenance of the public order”. 

For the 21-year-old, adjusting to life at Central Jail in Srinagar was difficult, he encountered men with different temperaments, some violent and addicted to drugs, said Waheed. Eventually, he made friends as well in the cell that he shared with many others. 

Among his cellmates were two students of law, who had encouraged Waheed to join them in their studies. And, back then, the prison had a “really good and supportive environment if anybody wanted to study”. 

That’s when Waheed actually looked around him and “saw so many young boys were falsely accused just like me”. “I saw their pain and I forgot about mine,” he said. “There were detainees who were abandoned by their families, who couldn’t afford a legal representation; I wanted to do something for them as well.”

Simultaneously, his relatives and legal counsel, the famed human rights defender, late Mir Shafqat Hussain, too, had encouraged him to pursue law.  As he firmed up his mind about pursuing a career in law, he fought his first trial with his family, convincing them that he wasn’t guilty of any crime. During his own trial, Waheed recorded the testimonies of three witnesses, too.

Even as the detention took a toll on his love life, his partner would make rounds at KU’s Department of Law to arrange study-materials for him. Shafqat Hussain, too, gave him a torn and old textbook on the PSA. “That’s the first book I read and I learnt it all,” he said. “While reading sections [of the act], at times, I would burst into laughter when I thought of my own dossier,” implying that the charges against him were flimsy. 

He made a schedule and sat to study every morning, at 10 am, and said that won’t just leave the texts. However, it was an entirely new field for him, and in absence of a tutor, he had his share of barriers too. That’s when he would go to Shabbir Bukhari, one of the other law students at the jail, “like a student”.

The shadows

Bukhari, who was earlier associated with the Pakistan-based militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), had also enrolled in the KU’s Law Department in 2003 as a regular student before he was arrested by the police. 

He maintained that he was not an active militant, however, the police had claimed that he was a “spokesperson of the LeT”. In 2005, he said, he was slapped with the PSA, accusing him of “activities [that were] prejudicial to the state and I was in connection with the commanders across the border … tasked to deal with print and electronic media [of LeT].”

He was in his third-semester of the course when he met Waheed in the jail. “I guided him throughout and he worked very hard,” Bukhari said of Waheed. And Waheed wasn’t the only one —  Bukhari tried to pursue many others in the jail to take up the course to not only help themselves but others too.

“Situation inside jail was like anarchy; many other detainees didn’t get apt representation, and it was a very pathetic situation,” said Bukhari, who also had Shafqat Hussain’s firm as his counsel. “We wanted to contribute to make it better. We felt duty bound.” 

Bukhari was booked under two consecutive PSAs — both were quashed by the court — and spent nearly eight years in jail, in other cases besides the PSAs, before the court released him in 2013. He completed his degree in 2008 and started practising law soon after his release.

Meanwhile after being imprisoned for eighteen months, the court quashed Waheed’s detention order under the PSA in 2007, after, he said, the Investigation Officer couldn’t find a shred of evidence to prove his involvement in any of the accusations listed in the dossier. Waheed now joined the university as a regular student and completed the course in 2010. He has been practising since then. 

Both Waheed and Bukhari have earned experience in defending human rights, especially of individuals detained under the PSA. “We were victims of this law itself so we practised with sincerity and honesty,” said Bukhari. 

But the past haunts both of them. On 12 May 2018, the police again detained Bukhari again, fearing he “might commit some offence”, under section 107 of the Ranbir Penal Code; Waheed still gets summoned to the local police station for regular verification.

Between 1988 and 2015, at least 16,329 persons were booked under the PSA. The numbers have been rising further steeply. In 2019, when New Delhi clamped down in Kashmir — imposing a harsh curfew and communications blackout, at least 662 persons were booked under the draconian law, or as an international human rights watchdog Amnesty International puts it: a lawless law. The majority of them were youth, between 18-35 years old, the data in Annual Human Rights Review 2019, a report compiled by Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), stated.

In July 2018, the State Administrative Council amended the PSA and removed the provision that barred the government from lodging residents of J-K outside the erstwhile state. That has facilitated the detention of another young man, Muzaffar Dar, a resident of north Kashmir’s Pattan in Tihar Jail, in New Delhi, under the PSA.

Like Bukhari and Waheed now Dar is also pursuing Law inside the jail. And both the lawyers are in touch with Dar as they guide him through.

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