“I am reborn today. We felt we will die in jail,” says Latif Ahmed Baja with a deep sense of loss. Latif stepped out of Jaipur jail along with two other Kashmiris—Ali Muhammad Bhatt (48) and Mirza Nisar (39— after being acquitted by the Rajasthan High Court on Monday, 23 years after they were arrested and lodged in different jails in connection with a bomb blast in a bus at Samleti in Rajasthan.
The state’s highest Court acquitted six accused, three of them from Kashmir. Sentences of two other convicts were upheld by the Rajasthan’s High Court.
Latif had been incarcerated from 8 June 1997 while two others were imprisoned from 17 June 1996, and 27 July 1996. During this time, they were lodged in jails in Delhi, Jaipur, and Gujarat, but were never released on parole or bail.Latif, along with Ali Muhammad and Mirza Nisar, were detained soon after a bomb blast on a bus on the Jaipur-Agra Highway on May 22, 1996.
All the three were released as the prosecution failed to prove their involvement after being held for over 23 years in various jails. While acquitting them, the High Court said the prosecution had failed to provide evidence of the conspiracy. It said the prosecution could not establish any link between them and the main accused— Dr. Abdul Hameed whose death sentence was upheld. In the first flight from New Delhi on Wednesday morning, the trio drove to their home with a few of their family members. A large number of their friends, relatives, and neighbors assembled to welcome them.
Before they were jailed, the trio was dealing with carpets and other Kashmiri handicrafts with business centralized in Delhi and Kathmandu.
Latif says he was offering Asar prayers when around a dozen of cops raided their rented apartment in Kathmandu.
“We didn’t know what was going on. They bundled us in a vehicle and drove us towards New Delhi,” he said. He says they were detained for a week in a local police station and were produced in Delhi court for remand. After that, he says, they were sent to New Delhi’s Tihar jail. Latif was then taken to Jaipur jail alone from then he was taken to Gujarat jail where he was detained for a period two years. After that, he was taken back to Tihar Jail. Latif couldn’t still find what was going on and why they were being punished for the crime they never committed.
“I was linked with a blast that had occurred in Mahua in 1996 and then also with the Lajpat Nagar bomb blast case of May 1996 and the same challan was produced in every case,” he said.
Recounting his time in jail, he says he and Nisar would exercise and pray regularly and would ask for the release from God. “We lost hopes of seeing the outside world but at the end Allah is Great,” he says.
“We were beaten ruthlessly by the other jail inmates along with the security guards after the Pulwama attack”, he recalled.
“If we are alive and free today it’s because of human rights groups of Jaipur and members of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. They played a crucial role in our acquittal and mounted pressure on the jail authorities after we were attacked,” he claims.
According to him, the jail superintended Mohan Chand Rakesh Sharma was so “ruthless” that even after acquittal, he wasn’t happy to let us go and told us how were we acquitted. Latif says as he sat on a chair in a hall packed with the visitors. He is unable to sit on the floor because the torture of years have made his legs week.
The trio couldn’t believe the news of their acquittal for over three days. “We couldn’t sleep with happiness,” Latif said and continued: “I banged my head with the wall in order to feel that I am not dreaming. You can see a minor injury on my head”, he said. When I heard that we will see the dawn of freedom from the jail, we hugged and wept profusely,” he said.
Having lost his precious years of life in jail, Latif said he has nothing to say and now he wants to spend the rest of life with his family. He spent 13 years in Tihar, 9 in Jaipur and 2 years in Gujarat Jail.
At the residence of Mirza Nisar
“I am unable to recognize my relatives and friends. Only a few people who came to meet me in Jail are known,” Nisar said. Nisar said he was just 16 years of age when he was made an accused, but the officials showed his age as 19 then. Now he is 39.
“How can I explain my 23 years of life in jail within few minutes,” Mirza Nisar says. “We were literally in hell and we cannot believe we are free now,” he said. Echoing the Latif claim he also says the jail inmates hate the Muslims so much that they don’t want to see them anywhere.
“And when you are a Kashmiri and that too a Muslim, one can imagine the height of hatred,” Nisar Hussain said. His other brother Iftikhar Ali Mirza was also in Tihar Jail and was released after 14-years, in the year 2010. Muhammad Ali Bhat son of Sher Ali Bhat, a resident of Hassanabad, Srinagar, lost his parents while he was in jail.
“I was arrested in 1996 and was lodged in Tihar till 2014 and then shifted to Jaipur Jail where I was lodged till last week,” he says.
“It’s better to die than spend life in jails but God gave us strength and we were hopeful that we will be out of bars one day.”
Ali who after reaching Srinagar first visited Imambargah Hassanbad to offer prayers said that he had thought that he would meet his family after his release but “all have died, my father, mother, and sister are no more,” he said with moist eyes. “I am happy but not seeing my relatives around I feel sad.”