‘They dragged me by my hair, beat me with their baton, then shot me with a pellet gun,’ says 14-year-old Ifra.
Delhi, India – Visitors and relatives surround Mohammed Rafiq Shah in the hotel room.
His mother, Mehmooda, 68, sits close to him, wearing a pheran, a traditional Kashmiri dress, and a green headscarf.
Shah sits cross-legged on the bed, observing his mother closely.
The 39-year-old had just been reunited with his family after spending 12 years in Delhi’s high-security Tihar jail for a crime he did not commit.
On February 16, a Delhi court acquitted Shah, along with another Kashmiri man, Muhammad Hussain Fazili, of all charges related to a series of explosions that killed 67 people and left 200 wounded in the Indian capital in 2005.
A third Kashmiri, Tariq Ahmad Dar, was also absolved of any charges related to the blasts on February 24.
Shah had been charged under several sections of the penal code, including murder and waging war against the state, for which the maximum sentence is the death penalty.
A day after his acquittal, I meet him at a hotel in south Delhi’s Nizamuddin West area, with his family, who had travelled from Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, for the final hearing in his case.
His eyes are red; he wasn’t able to sleep the night before.
“It’s the bed,” he explains with a smile. “I couldn’t sleep all night. It’s too soft for a person who has slept on … concrete for such a long time.”
On the night of November 21, 2005, Shah, then 27, was arrested at his house in Alasteng, a suburb of Srinagar. He still remembers the knocks on the door. Loud and persistent, they woke his entire family. It was about midnight.
“Before anyone could muster the courage to open the door, [a] couple of men with guns had already barged into the house,” he recalls.
From inside his room, Shah could hear the security forces shouting his name.
“They grabbed me by my hair. I was beaten. When my parents tried to stop them they also met the same fate. I was blindfolded and pushed into a vehicle,” he says.
Shah spent the next couple of days at an unknown location that he later found out was the Special Task Forces (STF) camp Haft Chinar – known to locals as “Cargo” – an infamous interrogation centre in Srinagar. There, he says, he was beaten and interrogated about the blasts.
STF, a counterinsurgency force, was formed in 1996, with the stated intention of helping to quell the armed rebellion that had erupted in Indian-administered Kashmir in the early 1990s. Since then, it has been accused of killing, raping, and torturing people in different interrogation centres across the disputed Himalayan region.
“They [the police] wanted me to confess to being one of the executors of blasts. The more I pleaded innocence the more I was beaten,” Shah says.
He had heard stories of people being taken to interrogation camps and then their bodies turning up in sacks on the banks of Dal Lake in Srinagar. Or worse, of their families never learning what had happened to them and whether they were dead or alive.
But the worst was yet to come. Two days after his arrest, Shah was flown to Delhi, where he says he was again beaten and tortured by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police.
Shah says that he was rarely given anything to eat and was forced to sign blank sheets of paper, which he claims officers later filled with his confession, forcibly gained through torture.
“They [the police] did things to me which can’t be said openly,” he says, seemingly conscious of his five-year-old niece Sumayah, who is sitting beside him.
Despite this, he recounts one particular experience he says he endured while in custody – at first speaking softly and then with growing anger.
“They [Delhi Police] forced me to drink urine which was brought in plastic bottles. When that didn’t help them they forced me to suck the genitals of other prisoners. While forcing me to do all this, they laughed,” Shah says, his hands shaking and his eyes focused on the ground.
He also says that the police stripped him naked and applied electric shocks to his genitals.
“When that was over, my trousers were filled with rats and my body was smeared with a [live] pig, which is forbidden in our religion,” he says.
For the next week, Shah says he was deprived of sleep, taken for mock executions, waterboarded with icy water, hung upside down for hours and humiliated.
“The interrogators,” he explains, “used to watch in amusement and made video clips on their mobile phones.
“They would always ask the same questions. I would say, ‘I don’t know’. They would say, ‘You know’.”
Shah says this continued for a week.
He was kept in a cell of around 10×10 feet with a small mattress and a bucket for a toilet. “I would remove its [steel] lid. The smell of human faeces would fill the room. It was nauseating,” he says.
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After more than 20 days of detention, Shah was transferred to Tihar jail. He would spend the next 12 years there as prosecutors repeatedly delayed his case.
“I should have been given a chance to prove my innocence much earlier. The burden to prove their case should have been on the prosecution, not on me,” he says.
Jammu and Kashmir police department declined to comment on the allegations of torture and abuse, while Delhi Police had not replied to our questions, sent via email, by the time of publication. A call and text message sent to Deependra Pathak, the Delhi Joint Commissioner of Police and its spokesperson, also went unanswered.
Manisha Sethi, who is an assistant professor at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university and a researcher on counterterrorism cases, explained that trials are often deliberately delayed “when the prosecution fears it is losing the case”.
Shah’s alibi, that he was attending classes on the day of the blasts, was ignored by the prosecution despite statements from Kashmir University, where Shah was a student at the time of his arrest.
The court that acquitted him called the police explanation for not following up on his alibi “rather lame to say the least”.
“These are entire lifetimes wasted,” said Sethi. “A mere acquittal after spending so much time in prison doesn’t amount to justice. Justice demands that the state and society make some recompense for the wrongs inflicted on these unfortunate men.”
Shah says he often imagined spending his entire life in prison.
“Justice was too little and too late,” he reflects. “I was given a chance to prove my innocence after 12 years. Not many others will get this chance. They will continue to rot in jails.”
This is not the first time that a Kashmiri has been acquitted by a court after already spending years behind bars.
In 2012, two Kashmiris, Mirza Nissar Hussain and Mohd Ali Bhat, were acquitted in the 1996 Lajpat Nagar bomb blast case.
In its judgment on that case, the Delhi High Court criticised the police for “serious lapses” in the investigation, although no action was taken against those who investigated the case. The two men had already spent 14 years in jail.
Sethi, the author of Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and Counterterrorism in India, says investigating bodies enjoy a culture of “carte blanche impunity”. She laments the lack of institutional support for victims of police excesses.
But despite his ordeal, Shah describes his incarceration inside India’s maximum-security prison – the largest prison complex in South Asia – as “the most beautiful days” of his life.
“I read a lot of books inside the prison and it shaped the person I am today,” he says, opening a bag of the books he read, among them Garrisoned Minds: Women and Armed Conflict in South Asia by Arundhati Roy and John Cusack and Scattered Souls by Kashmiri novelist Shahnaz Bashir.
While he was in jail, Shah’s two younger sisters got married and his parents fought a relentless legal battle to secure the release of their only son.
“It pains to think about what my family had to go through because of me but it’s all in the past now,” he says. “I just hope nobody gets to face the things I had to go through.”
Now, he hopes to study and to start a new life.
“I know it won’t be easy,” he concludes. “But hope is one thing that helped me remain strong for 12 years and I don’t want to stop hoping.”