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Last week’s acquittal of Muhammad Hussain Fazli and Muhammad Rafiq Shah in the Delhi serial blasts case once again raised important questions about how India’s criminal justice system works when it comes to terrorism-related cases.

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Fazli and Shah are the latest in the line of dozens of youths who turned out to have been accused of being terrorists or terrorist-sympathizers without plausible evidence, and whose lives have been destroyed by the country’s judicial system. They spent almost 12 years in jail.

Muhammad Hussain Fazli after being released from jail

Their story is more or less the same as of many other Muslims arrested for terrorist activities. Within hours of any terror attack, a bunch of Muslims, mostly youngsters, would be arrested. They would languish in jails for years and will be released because of the absence of any evidence against them. What about the precious years spent in jails and the trauma they undergo while members of their families are stigmatized? With a few honorable exceptions, media – electronic as well as print – act as echo chambers of the police. In September 2006, a blast killed 35 people at a Muslim graveyard in Malegaon (in the state of Maharashtra). The media blamed Muslims but investigations later showed that the attack was carried out not by Muslims but by the Hindu nationalists.

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What about the precious years spent in jails and the trauma they undergo while members of their families are stigmatized?

Everywhere the story is the same, irrespective of the party in power. In fact, most of the arrests took place when the Congress was in power. Far too many people are arrested and most of those detained are never charged or convicted. In fact, the arrest-to-charge ratio for terrorism offenses is substantially lower compared to the charge rate for all criminal offenses.

Governments at the center and in states misrepresent or exaggerate the terrorist threat. Police are under constant pressure to prove they are alive to the danger and arrest individuals, even though they might have little in the way of evidence that an offense has been – or about to be – committed. The need to produce results can often mean they ignore due process and announce arrests without gathering enough evidence to put before the courts. Some are arrested on the suspicion that they are members of banned organizations such as the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).

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Tackling the terror threat in a wrong way will contribute to the radicalization of the youth in the targeted community.

Once the case reaches the court, things take a different turn but that is no consolation for someone whose life has been ruined completely by 10 or 15 years spent in jail. Recently Nisaruddin Ahmad was acquitted in a blast case after he spent 23 years in a Jaipur jail.

In the pervasive atmosphere of fear and suspicion created by the war on terror worldwide, even expressing the kind of views that would once have fallen under the category of freedom of speech is now bound to invite trouble. Over the past few years, journalists belonging to Tehelka – an Indian news magazine known for its investigative journalism and sting operations – have documented hundreds of stories of innocent Muslims languishing in jails – often brutally tortured – on flimsy or false charges.

India is not the only country where the police are extra vigilant when it comes to dealing with terror attacks, real or potential. It is also true that police can’t afford to be complacent when the public fears its safety is in danger. But no fight against terrorism can be effective when a section of the population loses all trust in the investigation and prosecution. “Tackling the terror threat in a wrong way will contribute to the radicalization of the youth in the targeted community”, a former Home Office terrorism adviser in UK said in 2015.

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All countries should remember his words. As for the community leaders, they need to do something more than blaming the police or playing the victim card. The arrest in Kerala and some other states of more than 60 people on suspicion of Daesh (the so-called IS) links or sympathies is a warning signal. This should alert the community leaders to the need to do something to defeat the efforts of those who want to spread extremist ideas, especially among the unwary youth.

This article was originally published in Saudi Gazette on 27 February 2017.

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