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Saturday, 13 December 2014

Attraction of Foreign Terror: Remember Mohammed Afroze, the Pilot?

Mohammed Afroz was arrested under POTO in 2002.

Areeb Majid of Kalyan near Mumbai and Mehdi Masroor Biswas are two fresh Indian faces who got attracted to international terrorist organizations and allegedly attempted to become part of their activities. These two names remind me of Mohammed Afroze who in the beginning of past decade allegedly got attracted to Al Qaeda and was prosecuted by Mumbai cops. Mohammed Afroze’s case is one of the most bizarre cases in the recent history of Mumbai Police which had international ramifications. The arrest of Mohammed Afroz, the investigations & later the trial against him were covered by me & it is one of the most interesting terror related cases which I have covered as a journalist.

Mohammed Afroze, a lad residing in Cheetah Camp slums of north-eastern part of Mumbai was picked up from Hotel Abott in Vashi, New Mumbai. Police sources informed that they had got a “big catch”. They had got a terrorist who had planned to conduct a suicide attack in London in the same manner & on the same day when multiple attacks took place on USA on 09-11-2001. When I first got the news, I realized that this was a story on which I have to work for several months & this would also be very competitive as every crime reporter would strive to get something exclusive in this.

I found out his residential address in Cheetah Camp and after hacking my way through narrow, stinky & filthy lanes of the slums I reached his house. In that locality which was just a couple of kilometers away from Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Afroze’s family seemed to be better off than other slum dwellers & his house could be easily distinguished from other houses. Afroze’s house was a permanent construction made of bricks & finished with plaster & tiles while other houses in the area were constructed with tin, tarpaulins & jute. When I reached his place, his family members behaved very arrogantly and refused to speak anything on camera. Irately, they asked me to leave the place. I tried to convince them and pleaded with them for a while but it was of no use. I also told them that if injustice was being done with their son, I will take their side & pressurize the cops to free him. After all my efforts failed, I decided to leave the place, but not before talking to Afroze’s neighbours. After speaking to 3-4 persons in the locality I just managed to get tit bits of Afroze’s personality. He was of very reserved nature & mingled only with few people of his age. One of his neighbor told that he was famous as “Pilot” in the locality as since his childhood Afroze told his friends that he wanted to become a pilot & was also learning to fly in some foreign country. He told me that since last few years most of the time Afroze was out of Mumbai & rarely visited his home at Cheetah Camp. Another neighbor told me that he was of very timid nature. Few months back when Afroze came home somebody robbed him of his gold chain at knife point.

 I visited the first court hearing of Mohammed Afroze. Afroze was brought to Esplanade Court, amidst tight security arrangements. His security was parallel to one which is being provided to the Prime Minsiter of India. A pilot police van, then several vans of armed cops, then a big blue van in which Afroze alone was kept, followed by half a dozen other police vehicles led passersby to assume that some “VVIP” was traveling. Indeed, for Mumbai Police, Mohammed Afroze was a “VVIP accused.” When, Afroze was produced in the court, the police sought his remand on charges of robbery. A fellow journalist satirically remarked- “So much security for a single accused of robbery… I can imagine what Mumbai Police will do when it arrests Dawood Ibrahim. They will order a curfew in the city”.

Mumbai Police got a remand of Afroze for 7 days. One of my police sources who were not part of the investigation team told me that he was booked under charges of “robbery” so that police could get time to interrogate him & then book him for “the real charges”.

Mohammed Afroze was later booked under the then enforced stringent law of Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). Sections of Indian Penal Code like waging war against the country were also applied on him. 

On 14 December 2002, Mohammed Afroze gave a confessional statement before the court. He said that he was very much aggrieved with the 9-11 attacks in USA & wanted to reveal the truth. Additional Chief Metropolitan Judge V.P.Tawre gave him 4 days time to reconsider his decision & warned him that his voluntary confession could be used against him, but Afroze was adamant. However, he later retracted this statement.

In his confessional stated Mohammed Afroze stated that he was working for an international terrorist organization Al-Qaeda. He was recruited to this terrorist organization by a radical Islamist named Maulana Mansoor Ilyas who ran a mosque at Victoria, Australia.  According to Afroze’s statement, he took flying lessons in 3 countries. He took his initial lessons of flying in Royal Victorian Aero Club in 1997.
After he joined Al-Qaeda, he was asked to take advanced lessons at Tyler International School of Aviation in Texas, USA in 1999 & then in 2000 he joined Cabair College of Air Training at Bedford, UK. He told that his aviation training was funded by his uncle Mubarak Musalaman, who was staying in UK.

Afroze told in his confessional statement that Al Qaeda planned to use his flying expertise to conduct terrorist attacks on UK on 09-11-2001. He met 9-11 attack suspect Mohammed Atta at Iliyas’s residence. There were total 53 guys who were divided into 5 groups. Each of the group was given its target. The targets were World Trade Centre at New York, Pentagon at Washington, DC, Westminister in London, Rialto Towers in Australia & Indian parliament in New Delhi.

Afroze said that he was part of the London group. He alongwith Rashid, Rehman, Kasim, Abbas & Rafique were instructed to board a Manchester bound plane from London’s Heathrow airport & then hijack it. The hijacked plane was to be crashed in the Westminster area of London city. Afroze was assigned the responsibility of commanding officer of the operation. He along with others accomplices reached  Heathrow airport, but as the attacks had already taken place in the US, the airport in London was shut down as a precaution. Hence, the operation was aborted. When the UK security & intelligence agencies started focusing on the domestic flying schools, Afroze thought it prudent to escape back to India.

The detailed confessional statement of Mohammed Afroze led to multiple questions & sought further investigations on the claims he made & information he revealed. Mohammed Afroze became one of the most high profile terror suspects of India. He was one of the first accused to be arrested under Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) which was later withdrawn. To conduct his trial one of the best special prosecutors of Maharashtra Mr.Ujjwal Nikam was appointed. M.N.Singh, the then police commissioner of Mumbai, who had become famous for investigating 1993 Mumbai serial bombing case himself, investigated the case.

Several teams were sent to various countries to verify the claims made by Mohammed Afroze. M.N.Singh was heading the team which went to UK. In London he interrogated Mubarak Musalaman, the maternal uncle of Afroze who allegedly financed his aviation training for terror attacks. However, later it came out that most of the countries didn’t co-operate with Mumbai Police teams for unknown reasons. Some were reluctant to allow Mumbai cops to interrogate suspects named by Afroze while others didn’t co-operate in investigating the financial aspects of the case. Counterparts of Mumbai Police in foreign countries also created hindrances citing technical reasons. As a result nothing came out from the foreign visits & no substantial evidences could be gained to collaborate claims made by Afroze in his confessional statement.

Apart from the feeble investigation, there was also a grave legal mess up in the case. Afroze was charged under POTO, but at the time when Afroze conspired to commit the offence, POTO was not in force. Moreover, the accused of POTO were required to be produced before a specially designated court, but Afroze was being produced before a Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) judge A.Bhangale. Also, some of the charges leveled on him didn’t match with the sections of POTO.
 Although, the charges under POTO were withdrawn from Afroze, he was charged with several other sections of Indian Penal Code (IPC).

Sections of IPC under which Afroze was charged.
What the sections read.
Conspiracy to wage or abetting to waging of war against Government of India.
Criminal Conspiracy as defined by Section 120-A of IPC.
Committing depredation on territories of Power at peace with Government of India.
Forgery of valuable security, will etc.

However, the results post trial was a big blow for the prosecution. Afroze was acquitted from 2 major charges of conspiracy for waging war against India (121-A) & criminal conspiracy (120-B) He was convicted for depredation (126) & forging his higher secondary school certificate for the purpose of acquiring pilot’s licence. He was sentenced 8 years of imprisonment, but soon got bail & filed an appeal in Bombay High Court against his conviction.
“This was the first criminal case which I handled independently as a law professional.” recollected Afroze’s lawyer Advocate Mubin Solkar, who became my friend while I was covering the trial. Advocate Solkar was just 23 years old & had finished his studies of law only few months before he got this assignment. It was not an easy assignment for a beginner which was much hyped by the media & was being observed by security & intelligence agencies of several countries of the world.

“Many lawyers refused to take up this case viewing its seriousness & nobody had prior experience of fighting a legal battle under POTO which was recently passed by the central government. I took this as a challenge.” The challenged worked positively for Advocate Solkar right from the beginning. During one of the initial hearings, the prosecution informed the court that they are withdrawing charges of POTO. Later, acquittal of Afroze from major charges added more feathers to Advocate Solkar’s cap & he earned an image of a reliable criminal lawyer in the legal fraternity of Mumbai in his very first assignment.

I was the first journalists to interview Mohammed Afroze after he was released. While talking on my camera in a small room of a social organization Aman Committee at Crawford Market, Afroze declared that his first priority would be to absolve himself from the remaining charges for which he was convicted. He vowed to lead his life as a law abiding citizen & will work for the betterment of his community.

In the later years Afroze set up a unit at Navi Mumbai for manufacturing & exporting leather goods. My next meeting with him was in October 2004, when he contested Maharashtra state assembly elections as an independent candidate. Wearing a white Pathani suit Afroze didn’t look different from other politicians. The timid looking, vulnerable boy of Cheetah Camp slums was now know as “Afroze bhai” (Brother Afroze) in the locality after his jail stint. After being released out of jail, Afroze got an idea of how much “publicity” he attracted & how media had made him “famous” in the locality. He was surprised to see that even the Yoga session which he attended in prison was published as big news in the newspapers. Overwhelmed by such media coverage, Afroze considered the advise of friends and relatives that he should “encash his fame”. Afroze decided to contest the next assembly elections from Trombay constituency of Mumbai city. Trombay was one of those constituencies where there were significant number of voters from Muslim community (Out of total 488000 voters, 225000 voters were Muslims.) He first approached Samajwadi Party(SP) & then Congress & Rashtravadi Janta Party(RJD), but nobody appeared to be inclined to back the candidature of a former accused of terrorism.
After approaching all the parties claiming to be secular and pro minorities, Afroze settled to contest the elections as an independent candidate.
“Why will people vote for you?” I asked.
“If I win I will take up the issue of proper water and electricity supply in the area. I have been born & brought up in this locality and I am aware of the problems here. People in the locality will surely vote for a candidate who knows them & who has a plan to solve their problems.” Afroze retorted like a confident politician. Mohammed Afroze’s candidature was reported widely in media & he was listed among the candidates with criminal records. The results of Assembly elections brought bad news for Afroze. He lost the election, but managed to get 5000 votes, which surprised many.

Mohammed Afroze is not in news now. His dates of court on appeal against conviction are also no longer covered by the media. Afroze didn’t contest any elections after 2004 & nor he gives any interviews to television channels. Most of the new generation journalists covering crime & terrorism are not aware of Mohammed Afroze’s story. However, this case has been registered in the history of Indian counter terror operations as a lucid illustration of how Indian authorities lacked in dealing with a case. It not only exposes the legal acumen of Indian investigating agencies but also depicts a diplomatic failure of Indian government, which was unsuccessful in persuading the foreign governments to sincerely assist the investigations. Many questions still remain unanswered, like, what happened to other guys who allegedly took training with Afroze? Where are those guys? What is Mubarak Musalman doing? Where is Maulana Mansoor Ilyas now? 

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