Secret detention centres of India - Where, far away from the eyes of the law, enemies of the state are made to sing
By Syed Nazakat
Little Terrorist, as the intelligence sleuths came to call him, turned out to be a hard nut to crack. No amount of torture would work on 20-year-old Mohammed Issa, who was picked up from Delhi on February 5, 2006. The Delhi Police believed that he had a hotline to Lashkar-e-Toiba deputy chief Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhwi, who later masterminded the 26/11 attack on Mumbai. At a secret detention centre in Delhi, the police and intelligence officers tried every single torture method in their arsenal-from electric shock to sleep deprivation-to make Issa sing. He stuck to his original line: that he had come from Nepal to visit a relative in Delhi. Only, they refused believe him.
According to the police, the youth from Uttar Pradesh, who had moved to Nepal in 2000 along with his family after his father, Irfan Ahmed, was accused in a terrorism case, returned to India to set up Lashkar modules in the national capital. More than six months after he was picked up, the police announced his arrest on August 14. He has since been shifted to the Tihar jail. His lawyer N.D. Pancholi said Issa was kept in illegal custody for months. If not, let the police say where he was between February 5 and August 15, he challenged.
Issa could have been detained in any of Delhi's joint interrogation centres, used by the police and intelligence agencies to extract precious information from the detainees using methods frowned upon by the law. As one top police officer told THE WEEK in the course of our investigation, these torture chambers spread across the country are our "precious assets". They are our own little Guantanamo Bays or Gitmos (where the US tortures terror suspects from Afghanistan and elsewhere for information).
Not many admit their existence, because doing so could result in human rights activists knocking at their doors and bad press for the smartly dressed intelligence men.. It is a murky and dangerous world, according to K.S. Subramanian, Tripura's former director-general of police, who has also served in the Intelligence Bureau. "Such sites exist and are being used to detain and interrogate suspected terrorists and it has been going on for a long time," he told THE WEEK. "Even senior police officers are reluctant to talk about the system." So are people who have been to these virtual hells that officially do not exist.
THE WEEK has identified 15 such secret interrogation centres-three each in Mumbai, Delhi, Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir, two in Kolkata and one in Assam. (One detention centre that is shared by all security and law enforcement agencies is in Palanpur, Gujarat.) Their locations have been arrived at after speaking to serving and retired top officers who had helped set up some of these facilities. Those who have spent time in these places had no idea where they are. They were taken blindfolded and were allowed no visitors. The only faces they got to see were those of the interrogators, day in and day out.
The biggest of the three detention centres in Mumbai, the Aarey Colony facility in Goregaon, has four rooms. The Anti-Terrorism Squad questioned Saeed Khan (name changed), one of the accused in the Malegaon blasts of September 2006, here. He was served food at irregular intervals (led to temporary disorientation) and was denied sleep. Another secret detention centre maintained in the city by the ATS at Kalachowky has a sound-proof room. Sohail Shaikh, accused in the July 2006 train bombings, was held here for close to two months. "He was kept in isolation for days together," said an officer. "He crumbled after being subjected to hostile sessions. Intentional infliction of suffering does not always yield immediate results. Sometimes you have to wait for many days for the detainee to break. It is a tedious process." The smallest of the three facilities at Chembur has just two rooms.
Parvez Ahmed Radoo, 30, of Baramulla district in Kashmir, was illegally detained in Delhi for over a month for allegedly trying to plot mass murder in the national capital on behalf of the Jaish-e-Mohammed. The Delhi Police's chargesheet says he was arrested from the Azadpur fruit market in Delhi on October 14, 2006. But according to Parvez's flight itinerary, he travelled from Srinagar to Delhi on September 12 on SpiceJet flight 850. The flight landed at Delhi airport at 12.10 p.m. He had to catch another flight at 1.30 p.m. (SpiceJet flight 217) to Pune, where, according to his parents, he was going to pursue his Ph.D. But he never boarded the Pune flight as he disappeared from the Delhi airport.
Parvez wrote an open letter from the Tihar jail, where he is currently held, in which he said he was arrested from the airport on September 12 and kept in custody for a month. Apparently, he was first taken to the Lodhi Colony police station and then to an apartment in Dwarka, where electrodes were attached to his genitals and power was switched on. (Delhi's secret detention centres are located at Dwarka in south-west Delhi, the Inter-state Cell of the Crime Branch in Chanakyapuri in central Delhi, and the Lodhi Colony police station in south Delhi.)
"After my arrest on September 12, I was taken to Pune, where I was shown pictures of many Kashmiri boys," Parvez said in the letter. "They wanted me to identify them.. As I didn't know any one of them, they brought me to Delhi again and threw me into the torture chamber of Lodhi Road [sic] police station. They took off my clothes and started beating me like an animal, so ruthlessly that my feet and fingers started bleeding. I was later forced to clean the blood-stained floor with my underwear. They gave me electric shocks and stretched my legs to extreme limits, resulting in internal haemorrhage. I started passing blood with my urine and stool. Later I was shifted to one flat near Delhi airport [he later identified the place as Dwarka]. From the adjacent flats, voices of crying and screaming had been coming, indicating presence of other persons being tortured."
Throughout his detention, wrote Parvez, he was asked to lie to his parents that everything was fine. In the letter he also gave the mobile number from which the calls were made-9960565152. His family is trying to collect the call site details of the number to prove his illegal detention.
Delhi-based journalist Iftikhar Geelani, who spent nine days in the Lodhi Colony police station after his arrest in 2002 on spying charges, is yet to get over the traumatic experience. "There are lock-ups with such low ceilings that a person will not be able to stand," he said. "There is an interrogation centre within the police station where people are brutally tortured with cables, and some are completely undressed and abused. They also have a facility to raise the temperature of the cell to a point where it is unbearable and then suddenly bring it down to freezing cold."
Assistant Commissioner Rajan Bhagat, spokesman for the Delhi Police, denied the existence of such facilities. "Nobody ever asked me the question [about secret detention centres]," he said. "We don't operate any such facility in our police stations." But Maloy Krishna Dhar, former joint director of the IB, confirmed the existence of secret detention centres in Delhi and other parts of the country. He was convinced that detention outside the police station and torture are an inevitable part of the war on terrorism.. "Now I would never dream of doing the things I did when I was in charge," said Dhar. "But security agencies need such facilities." Interrogating suspected terrorists at secret detention centres, he said, is the most effective way to gather intelligence. "If you produce a suspect before court, he will never give you anything after that," he said. In other words, once you record the arrest you are within the realm of the law and you have to acknowledge the rights of the accused-arrested and contend with his lawyer.
An officer who worked in one of the detention centres admitted that extreme physical and psychological torture, based loosely on the regime in Guantanamo Bay, is used to extract information from the detainees. It includes assault on the senses (pounding the ear with loud and disturbing music) and sleep deprivation, keeping prisoners naked to degrade and humiliate them, and forcibly administering drugs through the rectum to further break down their dignity. "The interrogators isolate key operatives so that the interrogator is the only person they see each day," he said. "In extreme cases we use pethidine injections. It will make a person crazy."
Molvi Iqbal from Uttar Pradesh, a suspected member of the Harkat-ul-Jihadi-Islami who is currently lodged in Tihar, was held at a secret detention centre for two months according to his relatives. They alleged that during interrogation a chip was implanted under his skin so that his movements could be tracked if he tried to escape. "He fears that the chip is still inside his skin," said one of his relatives. "That has shattered him."
Kolkata has its own Gitmos in Bhabani Bhawan, now the headquarters of the Criminal Investigation Department, and the Alipore Retreat in Tollygunj, a bungalow that is said to have 20 rooms. They were bursting at the seams at the height of the Naxalite movement, but are more or less quiet now. "A large number of innocent people, as well as suspected terrorists, have disappeared after being taken to such secret detention centres," said Kirity Roy, a Kolkata-based human rights lawyer. "Their bodies would later be found, if at all, in the fields."
That was how militancy was tackled, first in Punjab and then in Kashmir. Today no secret prison exists in Kashmir officially after the notorious Papa-2 interrogation centre was closed down. But secret torture cells thrive across the state. The most notorious ones are the Cargo Special Operation Group (SOG) camp in Haftchinar area in Srinagar and Humhama in Budgam district. Then there are the joint interrogation centres in Khanabal area of Anantnag district and Talab Tillo and Poonch areas in Jammu region. Detentions at JICs could last months. Lawyers in Kashmir have filed 15,000 petitions since 1990 seeking the whereabouts of the detainees and the charges against them without avail.
The most recent victim of the torture regime was Manzoor Ahmed Beigh, 40, who was picked by the SOG from Alucha Bagh area in Srinagar on May 18. His family alleged that he was chained up, hung upside down from the ceiling and ruthlessly beaten up. He died the same night. Following public outrage, the officer in charge of the camp was dismissed from the service in June.
Maqbool Sahil, a Srinagar-based photojournalist who was held at Hariniwas interrogation centre for 15 days, says it is a miracle that he is alive today. "If you tell them [interrogators] you are innocent, they will torture you so ruthlessly that you will break down and confess to anything," he says. Human rights organisations are understandably concerned. Navaz Kotwal, coordinator of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said that there should be an open debate on the illegal detention centres. "The US had a debate on the Gitmos. Our government should come forward and respond to these allegations," she said.
No one wants to compromise the nation's safety, but the torture becomes unbearable, and questionable, when innocent people like the 14-year-old boy Irfan suffer (see box on page 30). The security of the country and its people is important and terrorism should be crushed at all cost. But the largest democracy in the world should also ensure that human rights are not violated.
Dhar defended the secret prison system, arguing that the successful defence of the country required that the security establishment be empowered to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists for as long as necessary and without restrictions imposed by the legal system. "The primary mission of the agencies is to save the nation both by overt and covert means from any terrorist threat," he said. "But to keep the programme secret is a horrible burden."