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Guilty of treason

Guilty of treason

Author: Bishwadeep Ghosh
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: February 5, 2008

For the first time, Islamists picked up in Uttar Pradesh have been successfully prosecuted in a fast track court. Five fanatics, including one from West Bengal, who had conspired to carry out bombings in Lucknow, have been sentenced to life imprisonment for waging war against the state

On a windy winter morning at a shabby Lucknow court room, additional district judge Dharam Raj did his bit to take the wind out of the ever-growing terror network's sails in Uttar Pradesh.

On January 23, he scripted life sentences to five fanatical Indian Muslims aligned to a Bangldesh-based Islamist group for waging war against the state in the name of jihad. The otherwise routine conviction is sure to spur judges to take a firm stand against agents and agencies working overtime against the country.

The five youth -- four from Uttar Pradesh and another from West Bengal -- were members of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba's offshoot Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami and were arrested by Special Task Force sleuths from Shaheed Path in Lucknow on the eve of Ram Navami on April 5, 2006, with a huge cache of arms and ammunition. Their sinister plan included the bombing of temples to fan communal passion that could have resulted in retaliatory violence.

The country's most populous State has been in national focus for all the wrong reasons most of the times. As if organised crime, kidnapping as an industry, the politician-criminal-police nexus and dacoit gangs were not enough, Lucknow moved into jihad's radar when a massive blast claimed several lives at Charbagh railway station in January, 1993.

Thereafter, owing to conditions that were -- and remain -- conducive to the growth of radical Islamism, fanatical groups and their conduits have used Lucknow as a safe transit point. In the process, several operatives of Islamic terror groups Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and the likes were arrested from time to time.

But while the law-enforcing agencies did a commendable job in the field, their paper work was abysmally shoddy. The performance of the prosecution was even worse. Despite there being clinching evidence -- for instance, of deadly explosives like RDX and grenades, and weapons like Kalashnikov rifles -- the prosecution has abjectly failed in making the charge of waging war against the state stick on the accused. As a result, fast track courts hearing cases of these hardcore Islamic militants only handed out sentences for carrying illegal arms and ammunition and resisting arrest by the police, but not for treason.

When the case involving the five activists of HuJI came up for trial, the common refrain was not very encouraging. But the entire process has been an epoch-making deviation from the past.

The youth, identified as Mehboob Alam Mondol of 24-Parganas (West Bengal), Mohammed Rizwan Ahmad and Mohammed Shaad of Amroha (Uttar Pradesh), Syed Shoaib Hassan of Aligarh and Farhan Ahmad Khan of Lucknow, crossed over to Bangladesh and then travelled to Pakistan on fake passports where they underwent a rigorous 28-day crash training in the use of arms and explosives. After picking up jihadi skills, they returned to India to indulge in subversive activities, but ran out of luck.

Interestingly, all the accused, as per their counsel, did not have any criminal background and one was even a teacher. This is a pointer as to how pan-Islamism is being used to rouse the religious passion of individuals who have otherwise not participated in any violent activity.

After a not-so-long trial, during which the prosecution presented 63 evidences, including personal depositions and exhibits, the sentence was pronounced on January 23. Highlighting the "humble and clean background" of the accused, the defence pleaded that since they were first time offenders, they be sympathetically treated and given light sentences.

Judge Dharam Raj, however, was in no mood to relent. Maintaining that since they had assembled at one place to carry out bombings to fan communal passion and violence ahead of Ram Navami, the nature of the crime was grave and they could not be let off lightly. The judge felt that the success of their evil mission would have meant large-scale devastation in Lucknow and a sharp divide along religious lines between the two communities. The judge further observed that it was deemed necessary to hand out stringent punishment to meet the ends of justice. The sentence was indeed severe.

All five were handed out life term for conspiring and waging war against the state. Besides, they were sentenced to 31 years in prison for whipping up communal frenzy and four other sections pertaining to sedition and unlawful assembly. For being in possession of arms, ammunitions and explosives, the men were handed out terms between three and five years and slapped fines. All sentences are to run concurrently.

The judgment assumes importance and is epoch-making in the sense that in earlier cases of terror links being caught and tried, all of them got away with lighter sentences instead of the charge of war against the state.

Two recent cases in point are LeT operatives Masood and Rasheed. The two men were arrested with four kg of RDX and detonators from Lucknow Cantonment on May 21, 2005. While Masood was never convicted, Rasheed got away with a minor sentence for carrying illegal weapons.

On August 13 last year, two other LeT agents, Altaf and Saleem, were picked up and charged with treason, carrying explosives and resisting arrest. Both were sentenced by a lower court, but only for carrying illegal weapons as the treason charge could not be proved.

Ironically, besides the weak follow-up during the trial, the State Government did not even bother to appeal against the lower court order in the High Court for pressing the charge of treason.

Hailing the judgement, DIG (Lucknow range) Chandra Prakash said, "This is indeed a landmark judgement and should serve as a deterrent for youth with hardcore leanings. At the same time, the police and prosecution should work harder to ensure more such convictions and thwart the evil designs of terror outfits."

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