This is the story of a "terrorist" called Maqbool Shah.
In May 1996, two dozen sleuths of Delhi police Special Cell picked Maqbool, then 17-years-old, from a flat in central Delhi's Bhogal area. For the next 25 days, he was shuttled between police stations in Jangpura, Nizamuddin and Lodi Road (headquarter of Special Cell).
On 17 June, he was produced before the additional metropolitan magistrate at Patiala House court, as one of the "JKIF terrorists" involved in the Lajpat Nagar blast on 26 May 1996, which killed 13 people. After spending 14 years in jail, the Patiala House court acquitted him for lack of evidence in 2010.
The prosecution's claim was that documents and clothes of Farooq Ahmed, one of the main accused in the blast, as well as a stepney tyre of the Maruti car used in the blast, had been found at Maqbool's residence.
But the Court declared these were not sufficient to establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
Recalling the circumstances of his arrest, Maqbool says he was a class 11 student in 1996, and had come to Delhi to spend a few weeks with his older brother, Dilawar Shah, who was a handicraft merchant. "Dilawar went to Srinagar for some urgent assignment leaving me at the Bhogal flat. That was when they (Special Cell) got hold of me", he said.
Maqbool says that every time he asked the police why he was at the station, he got one standard reply: "We are carrying out an investigation."
Shah is just one of the 16 cases that were included in a Jamia Teachers' Solidarity Association's study of 'terrorists' arrested by the Special Cell and were lated acquitted by court.
In the last five years,lower courts in Delhi have acquitted more than ten men who were arrested by the Special Cell for their alleged involvement in various terror cases including the 1996 Lajpat Nagar blast and the plan to bomb the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun. When caught, these men were paraded before the media as dreaded
terrorists linked to LeT, Huji and Al Badr. Yet court records reveal that they were languishing in jails for crimes they never committed.
"In these cases, the courts have indicted the Special Cell for setting up innocents; reprimanded it for violating due process and concocting evidence, ordered a CBI probe against the Special Cell, and directed the filing of FIR and initiation of departmental enquiries," notes the study.
And each of these cases follow a common pattern: secret information, which can never be verified, leads to the identification arrest of the 'accused'. The public and independent witnesses rarely join the operations which means there is none in court to verify the police claims. And the accused are picked up much before than the time of arrest shown on police record.
Alhough fabricated in what the courts have agreed is a false case, Maqbool says he was never tortured by the police. "You know how they treat a goat before qurbaani (slaughter)", he says wryly.
In the fourteen years that he was in Tihar jail, Shah's case came up before 26 judges. And before all of them, he pleaded innocence. "None but Allah heard me", he said. But then on 8 April, 2010, additional sessions judge S.P. Garg acquitted him.
"In the present case, the circumstances relied upon by the prosecution against A8 [Maqbool Shah] do not lead to any inference beyond reasonable doubt of his involvement in the conspiracy. The circumstances do not even remotely, far less definitely and unerringly, point towards guilt of A8," he said in his ruling.
He added, "Nothing incriminating was recovered at his residence showing his connection with JKIF and there was nothing on record to show that the accused had any link with or had attended any of JKIF's meetings with any other members of the said organisation or else had ever remained in constant touch with them."
The judge also noted that Maqbool Shah did not abscond from his place of residence even after the arrest of the key accused, namely Farooq Ahmed and Farida Dar.
The prosecution could not produce a single public witness who could testify to Shah purchasing any article required for manufacturing/assembling a bomb. Shah, now 34 years old, runs a grocery shop outside his home at Srinagar's Laal Bazaar. Over the 14 years, he's lost not just time but also relatives, including his father and sister.
"I was informed about my father's death 13 months later. I used to cry before the magistrate saying, do not even open my handcuffs, but let me go home once on custody payroll. But for them, more than somebody's son, I was a Kashmiri terrorist, you know!"