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Escape of Naveed Jaat: From smartphones to stacks of books, Indian jails offer ill-justified luxuries to terror convicts

It is troubling how easy it is for a Pakistani terrorist to escape custody in India. On 6 February, Mohammed Naveed Jaat aka Abu Hunzala—a Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist from the Pakistani city of Multan who had been in an Indian prison since 2014—escaped when his associates fired as he was brought for a medical check-up to a hospital in Srinagar. It is more troubling that in prison he had access to communications equipment, possibly a mobile phone or other internet-enabled devices to alert other militants about his upcoming visit to the hospital.

 Escape of Naveed Jaat: From smartphones to stacks of books, Indian jails offer ill-justified luxuries to terror convicts

File image of top Lashkar-e-Taiba militant Mohammad Naveed Jaat alias Abu Hunzullah. PTI

This writer is not an expert on how prisons in India are managed. But, Naveed's escape reveals that for prison officials in Jammu and Kashmir, nothing seems to have changed since the 1990s when full-blown jihadi militancy was underway in Kashmir. Some light can be shed on this issue of prison management from a book Maulana Masood Azhar wrote in 1999 when he was lodged at the Kot Bhalwal jail, near Jammu. Masood Azhar, the founder of Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), was among three jihadis freed by India in December 1999 in exchange for the passengers of the Indian Airlines plane IC-814 hijacked to Kandahar when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan.

During June to December 1999, Masood Azhar was provided numerous books to author a highly antisemitic book, Yehud ki Chalees Bimariyan (Forty Diseases of the Jews) – a review of which by this author will be published soon by the US-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). In the Urdu book, Masood Azhar reveals that he accumulated 250 reference books. The figure of 250 was not the total number of books available at Kot Bhalwal prison but belonged to his own library in his ward. Masood Azhar also reveals that some like-minded Kashmiri militants who were about to be transferred to some other jail handed over many of these books.

While it can be understood that prisoners need to be given a few books such as the Quran to fulfil their religious obligation, it's not clear why a prisoner, especially a known terrorist, can be given so many books by jail officials. Masood Azhar also writes that he was able to procure books from Pakistan, which were delivered to him through his lawyer. As per the book's introduction, Masood Azhar signed off the first volume of the book on 20 September, 1999 when he was still in the Indian prison and sent for publication to Maktaba Hassan, a publishing house in Pakistan.

At present, two lead Pakistan-backed terror groups are active in Jammu and Kashmir: Jaish-e-Muhammad led by Masood Azhar, who operates from the Osman-o-Ali Mosque at Bahawalpur in Pakistan; and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) led by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed who functions from Al-Qadsia Mosque in Lahore. Naveed, who escaped on 6 February, belonged to LeT. During the rule of prime minister Manmohan Singh, India freed Pakistani prisoners in a gesture of goodwill, many of them militants.

In April 2011, Saiful Maluk, a militant freed by India, was given a welcome party by Jaish-e-Muhammad at Bahawalpur. In January 2011, five Jaish-e-Muhammad militants freed by India were welcomed right when they crossed the international border into Pakistan, as per a report by Haftroza Al-Qalam, an Urdu weekly published by JeM. While the intelligence agents cannot be expected to be everywhere, it still is a failure of intelligence agencies that during those years, Jaish-e-Muhammad routinely hired Indian lawyers to represent its members before courts in India, ensuring their freedom. Intelligence agencies remained in the dark about the past background of these militants.

After the escape of Naveed, a report in The Times of India highlights how prisoners in the central jail of Srinagar are able to enjoy all the luxuries of the modern world – from smartphones with internet data packs to mutton delicacies. The report also notes how Kashmiri journalists get press releases from Qasim Faktu alias Ashiq Faktu, a militant jailed for killing human right activist HN Wanchoo. The incident involving Naveed is not only unique but also reflects poorly on the Indian mindset involved in managing prisons across the country. It is common knowledge that criminals and politicians lodged in jails across India enjoy the luxury of good foods and smartphones. Escapes like that of Naveed cannot happen without the complicity of officials.

For example, on 9 February, the National Investigating Agency (NIA) arrested two Indians for terror financing of Lashkar-e-Taiba: Dinesh Garg alias Ankit Garg and Adish Kumar Jain from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. Others arrested on these charges include Shaikh Abdul Naeem aka Sohel Khan of Aurangabad, Dhannu Raja aka Bablu aka Bedar Bakth of Gopalganj, Touseef Ahmed Malik of Pulwama, Mahfooz Alam resident of Gopal Ganj and Abdul Samad of Roorkee. Elsewhere, this writer has argued that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is proactive across India and its agents, both Hindus and Muslims, have been routinely arrested over the past decade. Here is what we learn from incidents like Masood Azhar's ability to write a book to the escape of Naveed: the 1990s militancy in Kashmir, as well as terror attacks like 9/11 and 26/11, haven't sensitised us about how to manage prisoners and prisons in India.

The author is Senior Fellow for Islamism and Counter-Radicalization Initiative at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC. He tweets @tufailelif

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Updated Date: Feb 09, 2018 17:37:59 IST