After 6 months in jail as 'terror suspect', a journalist returns
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But now, the first thing that comes to mind on seeing Siddiqui after his release from prison on Monday, is the disappearance of that enthusiasm from his face. Gone is the glint in his eyes, and in its place is a serious, sad man.
"I always thought the police, media and society at large do not treat terror suspects fairly. That thinking has been reinforced by my experience,'' said Siddiqui on Tuesday.
Among 15 youths arrested by the Bangalore Police last August-September from Bangalore, Hubli, Nanded and Hyderabad in an alleged LeT-linked terror plot — that has now been linked to the February 21 twin blasts in Hyderabad — Siddiqui was released on Monday after the NIA, which took over the case, reported no "prosecutable evidence" against him and co-accused Yusuf Nalband, 24.
As the NIA did not name Siddiqui and Nalband, a commerce graduate working in a private firm, in its chargesheet filed on February 20, a special court ordered their release on February 23.
"I feel really relieved that I have been able to come out clean. It is a huge victory for me and the community at large, because this is not one individual's fight,'' said Siddiqui. "People called me the mastermind of the group. If I am the mastermind, then my friends who have been arrested must also be released,'' he said.
The arrests were made on the basis of intelligence inputs of contacts between some of the youths and LeT-linked persons in Saudi Arabia. But there was no clear case against Siddiqui. It was alleged that he was providing radical literature and his office computer was seized.
One of five children of a small-time perfume merchant from Hubli, Siddiqui financed his own education, and did not allow the death of his father in 2006 to deter him from obtaining a post-graduate degree in mass communication and pursuing his dream of a career in journalism.
"When I was doing my PG diploma in mass communication, I chose the topic, 'Media coverage of terrorism suspects', for my thesis. Unfortunately, my supervisor struck down the topic, saying I may get into trouble. But the subject has always been on my mind. And I saw in prison that people have been stuck there for years, in some cases without a trial,'' he said, referring to the continued incarceration of 32 youths arrested from Hubli in 2007.
"I consider myself very fortunate that I have been released after six months. Trial takes about seven to eight years. When you are declared innocent after seven or eight years, it is like a slap on your face. My sympathies were always with terror suspects, and that feeling has become stronger now,'' said Siddiqui.
During his time in prison, Siddiqui memorised a significant part of the Quran. "That is one of the positive things this experience has given me," he said. Siddiqui said he also tried to engage himself constructively by teaching two of his co-accused who are illiterate (Mohammed Sadiq Laskhar, 28 and Mahaboob Bagalkot, 26).
"Initially I was very optimistic that I would get out soon because they had promised me. We waited and waited, but it did not happen," he said. As time lapsed, he feared that the police may fabricate evidence against him. With charges being brought under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967, the time for incarceration prior to the chargesheet was extended to 180 days.
"The experience has really changed me as a person. When you are kept in confinement, it is very depressing. Now I have a different perspective of the world,'' he said.
"I had so much time because there isn't any responsibility or any work. But it is an advantage in the sense that I had ample time to introspect. I could do some serious introspection about my life, career and the shortcomings in me as a person. I also read a lot,'' said Siddiqui.
He has no immediate plans to return to journalism, he wants to spend some time with his family. "I am yet to adjust to this changed environment. I have just returned from an entirely different world,'' he said.
Siddiqui hoped that the others accused in the case would also be released soon. "They have resigned themselves to remaining in prison for a while. But the thought is still there each morning, when you wake up, about being free once again,'' he said.
Pointing out that DRDO scientist Ajaz Ahmed Mirza, 25, who is also among the arrested, has not been named in the NIA chargesheet, Siddiqui said he expected him to be freed soon.