India’s Post-9/11 Law on Terrorism More Abused Than Used

Mohammed Haneef Abdul Razak Sheikh says he was held under India’s controversial anti-terrorism law for distributing food to victims of the anti-Muslim pogrom that swept western Gujarat state two years ago.

All the 287 cases booked under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) in Gujarat following the violence were aimed at members of the minority community.

Sheikh’s wife Yasmeen said that police, finding them away from home, grabbed hold of Sheikh’s brother and dragged him away after abusing other members of the family and ransacking the premises.

Sheikh was among those who gave testimony earlier this month at a People’s Tribunal organized by the voluntary National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and a coalition of other activist groups.

"Over the past two years, POTA has been used against juveniles, old people, members minority communities, journalists, members of "dalit" (low Hindu caste) groups, Adivasi (aboriginal) communities, women, political opponents and those struggling for socio-economic rights," said Colin Gonsalves, one of the main organizers of the tribunal.

POTA, introduced by India in compliance with a U.N. Security Council resolution following the Sep. 11 attacks in the United States, has ended up being used mainly to settle political scores, victimize religious and other minorities, according to the findings of the "People’s Tribunal."

After listening to the testimonies, Ram Jethmalani, lawyer and union law minister at the time POTA was passed, confessed that he was gravely in error about its passage in April 2002.

"I supported the enactment of POTA but I did it because it was done in obedience to the UN Security Council resolution. I regret it now," he said.

Jethmalani said he, like many others, had reposed faith in the honesty of politicians who said it would never be misused. "Today I have no doubt that it should go out lock stock and barrel."

Concerns about the misuse of the law have also been aired by politicians and by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

Others victims from Gujarat state testified that the police invariably made their arrests late at night, detained relatives of suspects and took away vital documents necessary to establish credentials.

Habib Bhai Karimi said he was detained for four days merely because his son Kalim, who was arrested, happened to be friendly with their neighbor, a religious preacher.

For his part, Om Prakash, a 10-year-old boy from who was arrested in May 2003 under POTA following the murder of a village headman in northern Uttar Pradesh state, said his only crime was "being a member of the ‘dalit’ community."

Many of the cases from Uttar Pradesh had to do with struggles for land rights rather than terrorism, say critics of the anti-terrorism law.

The bulk of the cases lodged under the anti-terrorism law have come from central Jharkhand state. A record 3,200 cases have been registered there under POTA, with several of them involving juveniles and nearly all of them targeted aboriginals or "dalit."

When POTA’s passage was being discussed in parliament in 2002, India’s Interior Minister Lal Krishna Advani declared that those who opposed it were being "anti-national."

Advani and the BJP got their way with the law largely because parliament was then recovering from the shock of the Dec. 13, 2001 aborted attempt by a suicide squad to blow up the legislative building.

Objections raised by opposition politicians at the time – that the law loosely defined key terms such as "terrorist organization" and what constituted "support" for such organizations and "proceeds" from giving such support – were easily dismissed.

Long-time complaints that India’s criminal procedure code, drawn up during the repressive colonial period and still largely intact, was marked by deficient investigation and serious procedural lapses were ignored to produce what many said was a parallel and more draconian criminal system.

What followed was embarrassing even for the BJP. It had to stand by and watch while Vaiko (one name), a member of parliament from southern Tamil Nadu state and a close ally, was picked up under POTA.. Vaiko was incarcerated for making a speech praising the Sri Lankan militant group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Vaiko, who leads a local party in the opposition in Tamil Nadu, was released on bail on Feb. 7, after spending 18 months in jail.

Some of the eight supporters of his party who were incarcerated for similar durations were present at the People’s Tribunal, but were bound by court orders restricting them from making public statements while on bail.

Gonsalves said the testimonies have greatly helped rising demands to have POTA repealed and get rid of "half-way measures" such as occasional amendments and a ‘review committee’ set up by the government to examine cases of abuse.

"We plan to bring more voices of POTA victims to the forefront and have them documented so that we can build up a strong case for the repeal of the act," he said.