‘After 23 Years In Prison, I Am In Another Jail’

Wrongfully arrested when he was 16, Mirza Nisar Hussain, 40, cannot find a job and is not sure how to begin life again after 23 years in prison and a year of freedom. He was acquitted of involvement in two bombings in July 2019, shortly before the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir.

A photograph of Mirza Nisar Hussain in Delhi when he was 16, the year he was arrested.

Srinagar: Mirza Nisar Hussain, 40, a resident of downtown Srinagar, was acquitted of all charges and released from a jail in Rajasthan in July last year after 23 years of incarceration in jails in Delhi and Rajasthan. Nisar was among the four men from Jammu and Kashmir acquitted last year by the Rajasthan High Court in connection with the 1996 Samleti bomb blast case. The prosecution had failed to prove their involvement in the blast case, the court said while acquitting them of all charges.

Picked up in a raid by Delhi Police’s Special Cell from Kathmandu, Nepal in May 1996, Nisar was accused of involvement in Lajpat Nagar bomb blasts of 1996 in which 13 persons were killed. He was 16 years old. The same month his brother Iftikhar Hussain was also arrested on the same charges from their rented accommodation in Delhi.

While Iftikhar was acquitted in the Lajpat Nagar bombing case in 2010 after 14 years of imprisonment without bail, Nisar was subsequently booked in the 1996 Samleti blast case and shifted to a jail in Rajasthan where he remained in prison for eight more years.  

More than a year after his acquittal, Nisar has not been provided any compensation. He was unable to find work in an economy crippled by the double whammy of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the decision to remove Article 370 of constitution on 5 August 2019.

Here, he recounts his ordeal since his arrest from Nepal when he was only a teenager, the torture and harassment he endured in detention, and how his family suffered as he and his elder brother languished in jail for more than two decades:

After my acquittal, I reached home on 23 July last year, days before the 5 August lockdown. I could see troops everywhere. Everything was gloomy here. People were fearful and anxious about what was going to happen next. Then everything shut down for months from 5 August.

Returning home was a very emotional moment for my family. I couldn’t recognize most of my childhood friends and the surroundings. Although I was happy to finally reunite with my family, it felt like coming to another prison after being imprisoned for decades in Delhi and Rajasthan jails.

When I returned home last summer, a lot of people from the press came to our house and interviewed me for a few days. I was told the publicity would help me get some compensation from the government and NGOs. But nothing happened. The press people stopped coming. I didn’t get any help, financial or otherwise, either from the government or from the hundreds of NGOs here. I don’t expect the government to help me either. No one seems to bother about people like us and how we will survive here after decades of being wrongfully jailed outside.

I’m not at peace here. I also found people don’t care as much about each other as they would in the past when I was a teenager. I don’t want to beg for support or help from other people. I want to live a dignified life in the remaining years of my life. I want to earn for myself and my family and live the rest of my life in dignity. But there is no sukoon here.

For more than a year since my release, there have been two lockdowns one after another. One began from 5 August following the abrogation of Article 370 and then there was another lockdown this year due to Coronavirus. I have been confined to my home for more than a year now. I don’t have any job or any work. I feel crippled as if I have come to another jail after all these years in prison outside. I don’t want to become a burden on my brothers and sisters.

While we were in prison, our house was damaged in a fire incident some years ago. It needs repairs which we can’t afford this time. I can’t think of marriage either at this stage as I have no work yet. And I’m not growing any younger. It’s a difficult life. I don’t visit my relatives anymore as they enquire about finding work. They talk about starting a new life as if it is that easy.

All my teenage friends I saw here after all these years are settled and married with children. Some became engineers and doctors. Then I look at myself and what was done to my life for no fault of mine.

I still get nightmares of those terrible years in different jails. I can’t sleep properly. I couldn’t sleep in bed for a long time after I reached home. My past haunts me. I have to start my life–of what remains of it–all over again. It’s not easy.

Sometimes I meet my fellow prisoner Lateef Ahmad Waja who was also acquitted in the same case after 23 years last year. He is also without work since last year. We understand each other and share memories of those torturous years in prison.

“We were better off in jail than here,” he told me last time we met.

Hussain is 40 now.

Arrested from Kathmandu

I was a teenager when my father suddenly died in the early 1990s. I had to join my elder brother in Delhi and take care of our Pashmina shawls and carpets business there which was looked after by our father before his death. My elder brother Mirza Iftikar Hussain was in his early 20s. I left school and we worked hard on our family business to keep it running.

My brother and I would stay together for most of the year in a rented accommodation in Delhi. We also opened a shop in Mussoorie in the Dehradun District.  Our business started doing well as we worked hard. We also began selling Kashmiri carpets and shawls to shops in Nepal.

Then suddenly everything changed. I had travelled to Kathmandu, Nepal one day in May 1996 by road to receive some payment from some of our buyers there. The place I was staying in the market area was suddenly raided by Delhi police along with Nepal police. They arrested me and some other Kashmiris who were there for business without explaining anything. We were shocked and terrified and kept telling them that we are innocent and have no connection with any case. They didn’t listen to us.

I showed them the photo of the man who had bought some carpets from us. I told them he owed us some payment and that is why I’d gone there.  All those who knew that man were arrested in Nepal and Delhi. Most were Kashmiris.

Nepal police personnel, who were with Delhi police at the time of the raid, did ask them why they were taking us away. It was then we came to know that they were accusing us of being involved in the 1996 Lajpat Nagar bomb blasts case in New Delhi.

We were blindfolded and then driven to the India Nepal border. On the way, they abused us and beat us up. They didn’t tell us where they were taking us and why. We were terrified.

When we crossed the border area and entered the Indian side, the special cell of Delhi Police was waiting there for us. They drove us to the Lodhi road in another vehicle and kept us in some small underground detention cells. We were not presented before the court. No one knew where we were locked up.

Tortured In Custody

I later came to know that my elder brother was already arrested by the special cell of Delhi police from our rented accommodation in Bhogal, in Jangpura area in Delhi. He was 22. Many other Kashmiris in Delhi were also arrested by the Special Cell of Delhi police along with my brother. They had not told the media about these arrests. We were kept in detention in those dark cells for nine days and nights.  We were stripped there and badly tortured for those nine days. I still shudder when I think of the mental and physical torture we went through in those nine days.  We were forced to sleep on cement, without clothes. They asked us to confess that we were involved in Lajpat Nagar blasts. They were desperate to frame charges against us.

They kept us in separate cells during those nine days. In between torture and regular beatings, they told us to confess as other Kashmiris being questioned in other cells had already confessed about their involvement in the blasts. It was a lie to break us, to somehow make us confess a crime we didn’t commit.

We kept pleading for our innocence, telling them that we had no idea about the blasts, that we are just earning our livelihood in the city. After we couldn’t bear the continuous mental and physical torture, we finally told them to tell us what we have to say or do so that they can spare our lives. Then they brought a big bundle of papers and we were forced to sign those papers. After we signed the papers under pressure, they didn’t torture us again for some time and also gave us normal food.

After those nine days, the police brought us before the media telling them that they had arrested the people involved in the Delhi blasts case. We were photographed in blindfolds and presented before the media after nine days of illegal detention. The Delhi police presented us as accused in court in the Lajpat Nager blasts case.

Before the court appearance, we were pressured by the police to tell the judge yes if he asked us if we were involved in carrying out the blasts. We had to follow police directions. The judge remanded us for 14 days police custody. Again some people from different security agencies started visiting us in custody. We had to repeat what we were told by the police to say. We didn’t have our own lawyer yet. We languished in different jails and then we were transferred to Tihar jail. There we met other Kashmiris who were similarly farmed and jailed in this case.

Since I and my brother were in jail, our business came to an abrupt halt. Our shops were confiscated by the police. We lost everything we had worked so hard for over the years after our father’s death.

Multiple Judges, Delayed Hearings

I was only 16 at the time of my arrest, but the Delhi police had wrongly written 19 as my age at that time in my case documents.

When I saw my brother in Tihar for the first time, we wept for days together. We were constantly thinking of how our mother and sisters will manage things at home. Only my younger brother was at home and he was still a student.

After some months, we got a lawyer from Delhi who wasn’t taking too much interest in our case. They took five long years to file charges against us in this case. During these five years, all we got was new dates of court appearances every few months. There were hearings after hearings every two to three months. We were tired of it all and lost all hopes of justice.

Our younger brother Zafar Hussain, who was studying in Ghandi College in Srinagar at that time, would initially visit us in Jail. After some visits, we told him not to visit us as it involved additional expenses and there was no one to look after home. We asked him to take care of things at home. He had to start home tuitions to earn for the family.

My elder brother Mirza Iftikhar Hussain was acquitted of all charges after 14 long years in 2010 when one of the judges came close to giving a verdict. He gave three men capital punishment and another man was given a life term in the case. Others were acquitted including my brother.  I continued to languish in jail long after he was freed. I had lost all hopes of being released.

I can’t tell you how our family suffered and managed to survive all these decades while I and my brother languished in prison. When my mother now tells us stories of how they suffered in all these years in our absence, it pains me a lot. (He breaks down here). That was more painful – to know later how your mother and loved ones suffered more than us at times.

We would sometimes get letters from home in jail and read about their ordeal. They suffered as much as we did in jails. There were times when they had little income and food to survive on their own. Our uncle and some of our relatives also died while we were in jail.

In this case all the 16 witnesses presented by the police turned hostile during various court hearings. After initial five years of our detention, one of the judges during one court hearing found the testimonies of the witnesses inconsistent with the police charges.

Sometimes one judge would give us another date of hearing after three to four months and when we would turn up on the day of hearing, the judge had been transferred. The judges changed from time to time and the new judges had to hear the case from the beginning.

Years passed like this as we remained in prison. In 2004, there was no judge on the case for one full year and the court had also disappeared. Then again the same thing – every few months we would get new dates of court hearings. And this way 10 years passed as the judges kept changing. In this case a total of 34 judges were changed till our acquittal.

After my brother was acquitted and freed in 2010, he appealed in Delhi High Court against the lower court verdict. In 2013, I and Ali Muhammad were finally acquitted of all charges by the Delhi High Court. The judge had written one line appreciating our conduct in the jail in all these years. I guess they had a guilty feeling that we had been wronged.

8 Years Of Detention In Rajasthan 

I thought I would be released soon now. But at the end of 2012, I was shifted to Rajasthan where I was imprisoned in Jaipur jail for eight more years. I came to know just before my acquittal from the Delhi blasts case that the police had also charged me in connection with the Samleti blasts that took place in Rajasthan in 1996.

I had never been to Rajasthan even when I was working in Delhi. It was crushing to know that I will be jailed all over again. I lost all hopes of release after being shifted to Rajasthan jail.

It was very hard there as the jail administration was very biased against Muslims, especially against Kashmiri Muslim prisoners. We were mentally and physically tortured there. Whenever there was any militancy incident in Kashmir, or some soldier died in Kashmir, they would blame it on us and harass us. They would abuse us and hit us. Sometimes we wouldn’t take more of it and hit them back. They were the worst people and inmates there.  All our hopes of being released died there. We realized they will keep us in prison forever. Sometimes I wonder how I came out alive from that jail.

Blamed, Beaten For Pulwama Attack

The last time we were badly beaten and harassed was at the time of Pulwama attack in February last year. The environment was charged and they hated our presence in the jail. Some hooligans were allowed inside the jail at that time. They accused us of killing their soldiers. They would abuse us and harass us, blaming us for the killings of CRPF troops in Kashmir.

The jail administration also let inside some hooligans who started beating us ruthlessly. They also beat up a Pakistani prisoner who was serving a jail term there. He had gone to the TV room to watch some news. We would avoid that room, knowing the risk there as other prisoners would be present there. That prisoner was killed with a stone. He was hit in his head inside the prison and he died. When the police realized that he had died, the attackers were taken out of the jail premises. After his death, we observed a hunger strike for three days and protested against the harassment and ill treatment by the jail authorities. The jail administration instead called more police and most of the prisoners there were dragged out and beaten up badly for protesting.

One of the prisoners was badly injured and shifted to the hospital. The local press and some NGOs came to know about it there and there was an outcry about what was happening inside the jail. The jail administration came under pressure and had to stop harassing prisoners.

Final Acquittal

Toward the end 2014, the Rajasthan lower Court gave a verdict, giving us life term imprisonment without any evidence. All these years my brother came to every court hearing after his acquittal. He filed an appeal to the Rajasthan High Court against the lower court verdict of life imprisonment.  Then the high court heard the case for five years. Finally, last year a female judge from Punjab started hearing the case on a daily basis. She was better than all other previous judges. She came at a time when we had lost all hopes of being released. She started the hearing and listened to all the arguments for 10 consecutive days before acquitting all of us.

I walked out of the Rajasthan jail after eight more years. I couldn’t believe it. After a total of 23 long years in different jails in Delhi and Rajasthan, I was told that I’m innocent. I lost my youth, my best years in prison for something I didn’t do. No court can return all these years I lost in different jails for being wrongly accused.

This can’t be called justice.

(Majid Maqbool is a journalist based in Kashmir.)