Wrongly convicted as young men for bombing attacks on Delhi and Rajasthan, three men return home to find they have lost families and livelihoods.
Lateef Ahmad Waza, 42, lives in an old part of Srinagar city, in India-controlled Kashmir. His home is tucked away behind a warren of run-down houses where visitors are arriving in a trickle.
Returning home, Waza cuts a pensive figure. Women break down upon seeing him, hugging him close and young men from the neighbourhood turn up with floral garlands.
Waza was released from jail after serving a total 23 years of imprisonment for a crime he did not commit. He was 16 when Indian police picked him up from Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, a mountainous country to the north of India. He had established a business to escape the fallout of a deadly insurgency that had erupted in Kashmir in response to India's dithering over the decades-old Kashmir conflict and the rigging of regional elections in 1987.
India dealt with the armed uprising imposing a massive military clampdown. As cities and the countryside were occupied by Indian soldiers, abuse and harassment became commonplace.
Kashmir is a contested mountainous territory between India and Pakistan. Both countries - who claim the region in total but only administer a portion - have gone to wars over it many times. The region came to global public attention recently after the US President Donald Trump made a mediation offer to bring an end to the dispute. India has consistently refused any third-party intervention to resolve the dispute.
Earlier this month, the United Nations Human Rights Commission denounced India over its inaction to punish soldiers accused of misconduct in Kashmir.
How do innocent men like Waza end up in Indian prisons?
In May 1996, a blast ripped through a crowded marketplace in New Delhi killing 13 people. The following day another blast occurred near Samleti village in the Indian state of Rajasthan, in which 14 more people died.
India blamed the attacks on insurgent groups that fought its troops in Kashmir and embarked on a nation-wide hunt to catch the suspects. Scores of individuals were rounded up across the country.
“Just days after the blast, Delhi police came knocking at our doors in Kathmandu and took me along the three or four other Kashmiris into custody,” said Waza, with a feeble voice, his eyes sunken into the craters that years of incarceration have worn into his face.
"I had no idea what crime I was arrested for.”
Waza, along with other detainees, was first taken to jail in the state of Uttar Pradesh before being hauled to Delhi.
"It is there I figured out I had been booked for Delhi 1996 blasts. The ground beneath my feet slipped away as I tried to wrap my mind around the implications of such a huge accusation,” he says.
Along with Waza, police also arrested Mirza Nissar and Muhammad Ali. All the three - who were formally declared innocent and acquitted of all charges earlier this week by a court in the Indian state of Rajasthan - hailed from Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir.
Now out of jail, the three men are starting to come to terms with their former lives; their family, neighborhood and friendships. Deprived of formal education and employment prospects, they have enormous odds to face before they can have a semblance of normal life.
The cases once again underscore the systemic prejudice that India’s judicial set up is ingrained with and sheds light on the limitations of the country’s ‘war on terror’ where Muslims invariably figure as suspects. The acquittal has also come on the heels of the Indian parliament’s approval of legislation that will toughen up anti-terrorism laws empowering its central level investigation agency further – a step that critics and the opposition have slammed.
Waza tells TRT World that police slapped him with charges of having been involved in at least three attacks across the country.
"During interrogation, I had a heated exchange with Investigation Officer Mr Rajwanshi. I told him I had no clue about the accusations he was leveling at me. He got angry pledged to take me out of Delhi and to another state so I could admit to the fabricated charges against me and that’s exactly what he did," he explains.
Waza was taken to Gujarat state where further charges were slapped on him including one related to 1996 blast at a sports stadium in India’s Jaipur city. "Later courts found me not-guilty in Delhi explosions case as well as the blasts in Jaipur city. However, I was awarded life imprisonment in the case of Semleti bombing. There was absolutely no evidence against me. In fact, another Investigation Officer is on record to have declared that we had nothing to do with the case yet the court went ahead with the punishment."
On Wednesday, two days after the court in Gujarat declared him innocent, Waza reached home to a teary-eyed welcome from his family. His father had died during his incarceration, waiting for his return. His mother Noor Jehan watched Waza with a glacial stare, her face as white as snow. TRT World prodded her for a response. She did not so much as twitch a muscle. "Her hearing ability is impaired," Waza says, wincing. "She has pined away in my absence."
Mirza Nissar, the youngest of the acquitted trio – lives a few meters away.
"I was a trader of world-renowned Kashmiri Pashmina fabric in Delhi before I decided to expand my business in Kathmandu. I was arrested along with Lateef and Ali in 1996.”
"Kashmiris are very vulnerable in these cases," said Parvez Imroz, a prominent rights activist in Kashmir and recipient of Rafto Peace Prize 2017. "What compounds the matter is how electronic media in Delhi acts in concert with the establishment and amplifies the content of police charge-sheets to sensationalise the detentions. We have compiled cases of plenty of such people who were incarcerated for decades before courts found them innocent."
Kashmir #summed up for you Three residents of Kashmir #Released from indian jail after 23 years for no crime— Faizan (@Faizan09463729) July 24, 2019
This is beyond heartbreaking. They were imprisoned in year 1996.. @abasitpak1 @ZaidZamanHamid @HamidMirPAK @southKashmir24 @Woste_Haakh @imrankehwah pic.twitter.com/pJ3foQdFVe
In 2006, Delhi police Special Cell similarly detained Imran Kirmani, 24-year-old aeronautical engineering from Kashmir and accused him of plotting a 9/11 style attack in India. He spent four a half years in jail before court declared him innocent. It is not uncommon to see individuals with Muslims names figuring among the accused in terror cases and serving a long sentence before courts eventually acquit them. In 2015, a court in the Indian state of Maharashtra acquitted Wahid Bin Mohammad Sheikh who served nine years in jail as police's Anti Terrorism Squad accused him of being involved in 2006 Mumbai train attacks. In 2012, a civil society group released report charging special counter terrorism India police unit with forging evidence contriving false confessions to frame innocent Muslim men. Jamia Teachers' Solidarity Association had studied 16 such cases before publishing the report.
Nissar, who recently completed his undue prison sentence, alleges Delhi police made him sign a charge-sheet. "They pressed whatever charges they could. I was accused of being involved in Delhi and Samleti blasts," he says, welcoming friends and distant relatives who duck through the door into the low-ceilinged room packed with visitors. "I spent 23 years in jail frequenting between Tihar jail in Delhi and Jaipur Central Jail in Rajasthan."
In video - Relatives and neighbors of Lateef Ahmad Wajah, one of the three youth who were acquitted by Rajasthan court after spending 23 years in different jails celebrating (Singing) after he reaches his #Srinagar Residence. #Kashmir pic.twitter.com/hH7bX8xXfU— Umar Ganie (@UmarGanie1) July 24, 2019
As guests continue to stream in, Ali opens his mouth in surprise to see his relatives grown beyond recognition. He tells TRT World that his entire clan from his maternal home – with whom he shared a close bond – had died.
All acquitted Kashmiris alleged torture and harassment at the hands of jail inmates and authorities. "Whenever Kashmir came into news for reasons they did not like, they thrashed us," says Lateef, pulling off his cap to reveal a welt of raised skin. "There are the marks I got there. They even stoned to death a Pakistani prisoner in February. He was our jail-mate."
Ali tells TRT World that the attitude of prisoners changed drastically after 2014. "Previously there was some amount of religious harmony in prisons. After Modi came to power, frequent spells of sectarian brawls become a common thing and so did the religious animus towards Muslim prison mates."