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Tell the truth about Liaqat Shah: it won't kill anyone

Palaniappan Chidambaram, then India’s home minister, just couldn’t restrain himself when the news arrived. In February, 2010, a bomb had ripped through the German Bakery in Pune, killing 17—the first major terrorist attack since 26/11, and a  blot on Chidambaram’s until-then spotless-white record. Then, in May, Maharashtra's élite anti-terrorism squad arrested a slight young man Abdul Samad Siddibapa at Mangalore’s airport soon after he arrived from Dubai.

“I compliment ATS Maharashtra, the Pune Police and central agencies on apprehending the prime suspect within hundred days of the incident,” Chidambaram said.

Less than a month after Chidambaram made that emphatic assertion, Baig was home, cleared by investigators of all charges bar the one that got him in the first place—simply being the brother of fugitive jihadist Yasin Siddibapa, also known as Yasin Bhatkal. This time, there was no ministerial statement.

 Tell the truth about Liaqat Shah: it wont kill anyone

Does the Delhi police have enough evidence against Liaqat Shah? Screengrab from CNN-IBN

New Delhi’s high officials ought be carefully considering the cautionary tale of Baig. Last week, the Delhi Police arrested Liaqat Shah on charges of being a key figure in what is being called the Holi terror plot—a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen plan to carry out fidayeen strikes in the run-up to this week’s festival.  The arrest, however, has provoked outrage.  The Jammu and Kashmir Police insists Shah, a one-time jihadist, was returning home to surrender; an enraged chief minister Omar Abdullah has demanded an National Investigations Agency probe.

There are five straightforward questions the Delhi Police needs to answer.

1. Let’s assume that the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen indeed tasked Shah with what the Delhi Police said in it's press release: “selecting the best possible target where maximum casualties could be inflicted”. If this is true, the following proposition must also be true: the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen had operatives familiar enough with Delhi to ship in weapons and explosives. It however needed Shah, who is not known to have ever been involved with a lethal terrorist operation and hadn’t set foot in India since 1997, to select a target and supervise fidayeen.

2. The date-time stamp on the closed-circuit video of the Delhi Police’s missing suspect shows him entering the Haji Arafat hotel at just before 4:01 pm on 20 March. That’s the same date the Delhi Police claim to have arrested Shah in Gorakhpur. It's safe to say the missing suspect coordinated his arrival to coincide with Shah. The suspect and another man, hotel staff say, departed six hours later—and never came back. The earliest train from Gorakhpur to New Delhi I’ve managed to find would have got Shah into Delhi at 4.05 am on 21 March, so it can’t be the suspect fled because Shah failed to show up. Perhaps Shah failed to make a pre-planned rendezvous call to the fugitives within an agreed deadline. This still doesn’t explain, however, why the missing suspects left their lethal kit behind.

3. Following Shah’s arrest, we know from the testimony of his wife, she, her daughter, and another family of four that had travelled with them from Pakistan were allowed travel on home. This is a bit odd, since the six are witnesses to Shah’s activities. The group ought have been questioned and their statements recorded. This is all fairly standard police procedure.

4.  Shah evidently didn’t tell the police of the location of the arms and ammunition in the hotel until 21 March. The Delhi Police raided the Arafat at 10.30 pm that night after waiting unsuccessfully for the missing suspect to show up. In all this time, though, they neither contacted the Jammu and Kashmir Police nor the Intelligence Bureau to see if either had useful information. They didn’t even do so after learning that the missing suspects had fled. This is, again, common-sense police practice.

5. Last, but not least, there’s a fashion issue that needs clearing up.  The video of the Delhi Police’s missing suspect shows him wearing a cap as he enters the Arafat Hotel. Please note the white swoosh-like shape on it's crest. Shah was also wearing a similar cap when he was taken by police to be produced before a Delhi magistrate. Please note the white swoosh-like shape on it's crest.

Five questions, it is important to note, don’t add up to a sinister police conspiracy. Police officials had no way of knowing that Shah was going to arrive at the Sanauli border on 20 March unless an intelligence service or informer told them—and no motive to harass him alone of all the hundreds of former jihadists who’ve returned to Kashmir this way. Had police wished to frame Shah on charges of weapons possession, moreover, they could have just discovered a pistol in his hand-luggage, or pretended he led them to a weapons dump at a conveniently abandoned spot. There would have been no need for an elaborate story.

The maniacal suspiciousness of police that suffuses human rights activism on behalf of terrorism suspects has led, more than once, to conclusions just as spectacularly erroneous as the police investigations they rail against.  There is little evidence that Indian counter-terrorism investigators are maniacs who spend their time picking random people off the streets—though there are plenty of cases of egregious wrong-doing.  The arrest of Siddibapa, the lingering questions on the role of Himayat Baig in the 2010 Pune attack, and course of the 2006 Mumbai train bombing investigation have done no credit to India’s police.

Is it possible that a terrorist roaming the streets happens to be wearing a cap similar to the one handed to a suspect in police custody? Actually, yes. Is it possible the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen knew of an arms cache or operatives in Delhi? Ditto. Is it possible Shah was in on a murderous plot? Sure.

But can the available evidence lead a reasonable person to find this claim credible? No.

This, in other circumstances, shouldn’t be a big issue. Police are obliged to produce evidence in courts of law, not at press conferences.  Indeed, the Delhi Police would have been best served by stating the bare facts of the case—i.e., that they had a suspect in their custody who they were questioning—instead of issuing a rambling press release full of contradictions.

However, we have the circumstances we have. Those contradictions and holes have fuelled suspicions in already-volatile Kashmir, and fed conspiracy theories put out by Islamists and their friends about the integrity of India’s counter-terrorism efforts.

There are plenty of non-sinister explanations of what might have happened—among them, the prospect that an informer sold the intelligence services a lemon; that Shah was set up by his one-time comrades; that he engaged in insincere promises to help the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen get it off his back as he prepared to escape Pakistan.  Perhaps Shah even meant to do what the Delhi Police says he meant to do.

It is an everyone’s interest that the public is given information that will allow it to choose one of those options over the others—irrespective of whether it involves an embarrassing mistake, criminal conduct by rogue officers, incompetence, or actual guilt.

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Updated Date: Mar 25, 2013 21:52:09 IST

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