Shahid Azmi was a young lawyer from Maharashtra, best known for his exemplary litigating skills in the trial courts of Mumbai. His track record of 17 acquittals in seven years remains a matter of awe for those acquainted with the inordinate delays with which the criminal courts function.
Shahid almost exclusively dealt with cases of those charged under anti-terror laws such as TADA, POTA, UAPA and MCOCA. He was himself charged under TADA and lodged in Tihar Jail, where he spent six years of his life. These years in jail, where he was subject to physical torture, pushed Shahid towards a new course of action. He completed his graduation while in prison and took up a degree in law immediately after his release. He started litigating in 2002.
Shahid was a vocal critique of the dismal state of the criminal justice system. From time to time, he made representations about the overtures of investigating agencies and the manner in which anti-terror laws were used against Muslims in Maharashtra. Speaking about the methods of enforcement agencies at a seminar organised by Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad Research Centre, Aurangabad, Shahid had said, “Whenever someone is arrested under anti-terror laws, agencies arrest him under a suspicion that he is a threat, not because they’ve evidence with them. According to how his interrogation goes, IB prepares a report that this person should be in jail for these many years and even if he is able to obtain release, he should be under surveillance. How does the system keep him in jail? Even if he gets an acquittal, investigating agencies will immediately get it stayed from the higher judiciary. This appeal will remain in court for years. In my experience, I’ve seen this happen in almost every case. From an acquitted prisoner, his position reverts back to that of an accused. If the person is able to afford to go to the Supreme Court, the bail will render him immobile. Trips to the courts will continue. The shadow of the system will never leave him.”
Due to his forthrightness and the nature of his work, he was regularly subject to attacks and threats. On 11 February, 2010, he was shot dead at his office in Kurla, a Mumbai suburb.
It has been nine years since advocate Azmi was shot dead. Firstpost spoke with Shahid’s brother, advocate Khalid Azmi at the Second Memorial Lecture organised in the memory of Shahid Azmi at the Marathi Patrakar Sangh. Edited excerpts:
What is the update on Shahid Azmi’s murder trial?
The trial has just started. The first of the prosecution’s 108 witnesses is in the witness box. We’ve finished his chief examination, the cross-examination is still pending. The eyewitnesses have identified the accused. But the lawyers of the accused hasn’t surfaced yet. On the next scheduled date, which is 25 February, they might appear to cross-examine our witness. There are four accused in all. Vinod Vichare and Pintu Dhagle are out on bail, Devendra Jagtap and Hasmukh Solanki are still in custody. They’ve tried to stall the case by filing multiple bail applications but even the Supreme Court has rejected their plea. They’ve filed yet another bail application in the (Bombay) high court. The prosecution is trying its best to quicken the pace of the trial.
How is your family doing? How is your mother Rehana?
We are getting by. My mother is still in shock. You might say it has been long but as Shahid’s mother, she is yet to come in terms with what has happened to her son. She is in depression most of the time.
You have faced death threats before. So has your family. Is this still continuing?
I did face a few threats. But after investigation, it came to the knowledge of the police that some of them had personal issues with me. Those cases are closed now.
While there has been nothing explicit when it comes to the accused in Shahid’s murder case, I do feel it when I am in the court. Whenever the accused appears in the court, they are accompanied by many people. These people have never spoken to me but by way of their body language and stares, there is an attempt to intimidate me. There are silent threats which might not be visible but can be felt.
Have you taken over the cases which your brother handled?
I did handle these cases till 2014. But the Jamiat Ulema, the organisation whose cases my brother was handling, did not help us in his murder trial in spite of the struggles we were facing. I stopped working with them in 2014. I don’t know what has happened to those cases. Anti-terror cases are not the only cases I am doing now. I am pursuing a full-fledged litigation practice.
If they aren’t supporting, then who is? What about other organisations? How are you managing to keep yourself safe as you’ve received threats before and might, during the course of the trial?
I can tell you this, there is nobody. I depend only on my close friends and colleagues.
Till date, nobody has come forward and asked me about the status of Shahid Azmi’s murder trial. I was asked to share the update of the case at the memorial lecture. But how come no organisation has come to Shahid Azmi’s family to enquire about the trial and the difficulties we are facing. Nobody has come to us. We are called at times to give such updates, and we do this. We explain what is happening and what is not. But there is nothing beyond that. Why is it that only on the day of his death you want to talk about his case? What about the other days? Do we eat only one day in the year? The rest of the year, what happens to those who want to celebrate Shahid Azmi. Why have they forgotten that it has been nine years and the trial has just started. Why have they forgotten the family of Shahid Azmi?
Sometimes I feel insecure, for myself and my family. But I reassure myself from time to time. I don’t have another option. I need to carry on my work and for this, I’ve to think that I am secure.
At the memorial lecture, your brother Arif mentioned an incident from Shahid’s life. He described how when Shahid was taken to the Patiala House Court in Delhi, he saw Sikh prisoners accompanied by members of the Sikh community. He worked to create this for Muslim under trial prisoners as well. Following Arif, Walid spoke, whose brother was an accused (who was represented by Shahid and was eventually acquitted) in the 7/11 bomb blasts. Walid spoke about how Shahid had created an ecosystem for prisoners, right from the trial court to the Supreme Court. Walid also said that after Shahid, this support system has pretty much fallen apart. Why do you think that is?
Soon after the death of my brother, there was nobody to handle the cases that my brother had been looking after. I had just started practising. It had been only about four months since I had received my degree in law. I was requested to look after the cases of 26/11. I approached many independent lawyers to help me in this trial but nobody agreed. Everybody was reluctant to associate themselves with the kind of cases my brother had been doing. They were scared that they would come under attack. Finally, I approached RV Muqasi, one of my closest friends. He agreed to help me out. He argued the matter and I assisted him. We completed the trial and got an acquittal as well. We appeared in the high court when the judgment came up.
But at that time, it was really difficult. My brother was different. He used to approach all the cases with a lot of depth and intensity. It is probably because he had lived through the experience of being falsely accused. I don’t see a lot of people like that anymore. They are still reluctant and don’t want to have anything to do with this kind of work. Now, I am going through the same situation that my brother faced but can I stop taking the cases because of external pressures or intimidation? No. If you are in the field, you’ve to do what you can.
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Updated Date: Feb 12, 2019 15:24:58 IST