Had the plan come together on April 20, 2015, fishing boat ‘Al-Yaseer’ would have met another boat sailing from Dubai and transferred onto it 11 blue plastic drums filled with 232 kilograms of heroin and made its way back to Karachi like any fishing boat should — filled with the day’s catch.
As it turned out, Al-Yaseer was only hours away from the planned rendezvous when it was caught by the Indian Coast Guard, which unsurprisingly, found nothing on the boat that indicated a fishing trip. They found 232 packets, each containing 1 kilo of heroin. The police valued the catch at Rs 6.96 crore.
If successful, the crew had been instructed to carry out their usual task — catch fish. They would cast fishing nets in the water and return to Karachi like any fishing boat would, with no trace of anything illegal that ever happened on board.
The eight crew members, all impoverished fishermen, labourers and farm hands hailing from the Sindh province, the city of Karachi and the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, were questioned by Coast Guard Deputy Commandant Ronald Gangmei at the district headquarters in Porbandar, Gujarat, on April 24, 2015.
Eight months after their arrest, the Mumbai Police finally filed a 700-page chargesheet at the Bombay City Civil and Sessions Court in December, which interestingly has two sets of contrary statements given by the Paksitani nationals to Coast Guard and Yellow Gate police — narrating two sets of stories.
In statements recorded in Hindi, all of them admitted to knowing that transport of heroin was a crime, which they had committed “due to greed for more money”. Only five days later, after the custody of the sailors was handed over to the Yellow Gate police station in South Mumbai, which investigates all crimes off the country’s western coastline, fresh statements recorded in Marathi indicate exactly the opposite.
To the police, all eight fishermen claimed to have no knowledge of the contents of the drums. Instead, they claimed that the owner of Al-Yaseer had lied to them that they would be transporting a chemical to be handed over to a boat coming from Dubai. The only fact that the Coast Guard’s and the Mumbai Police’s versions agrees upon is the instruction given to Al-Yaseer’s crew, assuming a successful meeting: “cast your fishing nets on the way back to Ibrahim Hyderi harbour in Karachi”.
The fishermen — Maksood Akhtar Yusuf Maseem (39), Mohammad Baksh Natho Sindhi (38), Alibaksh Allahbash Khashkeli Sindhi (30), Mohammad Ahmad Mohammad Inayat Punjabi Gujar (28), Mohammad Yusuf Abdullah Gagawani Sindhi (45), Mohammad Yunus Haji Mohammad Sumar Sindhi (35), Mohammad Gulhasan Maulabaksh Baluch Sindhi (30) and Gulhasan Mohammad Siddiq Sindhi (40) — have been charged under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act.
The charges include selling or importing drugs into India, engaging in the trade of a drug banned outside India and abetment and criminal conspiracy. The police have also declared as wanted three men — Karachi resident Shaukatali, who first approached fisherman Maksood; Zafar Iqbal, the owner of Al-Yasser and also responsible for the hiring; and Imran Khan Pathan, about whom nothing is known.
Advocate Swapnil Patil, who is representing the fishermen, said there were no witnesses to the Coast Guard’s seizure of the boat on April 20.
“There are no independent witnesses to corroborate the Coast Guard’s version of the seizure. A panchanama was only conducted on April 26 in Mumbai, six days after the seizure, so those witnesses have no value,” he said, adding that in spite of being granted a two-month extension by the court, the police had failed to produce call detail records of three mobile phones seized from the fishermen. “The chargesheet is incomplete,” he said.
According to both agencies, the jailed fishermen share common backgrounds of low-paying dailywage jobs that are unable to provide for their large families. One of them explicitly claimed to the Coast Guard that he was constantly looking to earn more money. Each of them had been promised Rs 50,000 for the job by Shaukatali and Zafar Iqbal, an advance of Rs 10,000 had been paid to them even before they set sail and the remainder was to be paid on their return.
Maksood, the first recruit who spent several years painting houses before switching to fishing at Ibrahim Hyderi harbour, and earning between Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 a day, was the first to admit to the Coast Guard that 12-13 days before being caught, Shaukatali had made him an offer of Rs 50,000 to him transport heroin across the sea. He told the Coast Guard that the Al-Yaseer, which had been docked near a patch of mangroves close to Juwa Bunder in Karachi, set sail on April 17. Shaukatali had given Maksood three Thuraya satellite phones, which are banned in India, two Global Positioning System (GPS) machines and two compasses, besides an instruction to not touch the plastic drums.
Both the Coast Guard and the police narrate that Maksood was told to call a number saved by Shaukatali on one of the Thuraya handsets every four hours to relay the boat’s position. In his last conversation with the man named Haji, who the police believe is the owner of the Dubai boat, Maksood was told, “Tum chalte raho. Darne ki koi baat nahi hai. Char ghante baad tumhe naav milegi. Usme tumhare paas 11 drum hain, unko uss naav mein rakh dena aur phone ko band mat karna (You keep going. There is nothing to be afraid of. You will see a boat after four hours, put the 11 drums into it and do not switch off your phone).”
On April 29, Maksood told Inspector Umakant Tannu of the Yellow Gate police station that Shaukatali had told him that he would transport chemicals for which he had been paid an advance of Rs 10,000. “Zafar Iqbal tricked us into believing that the 11 drums containing heroin were filled with chemicals. Because of his lies, we have been caught are being investigated,” he said in his statement to the police. Fisherman Mohammad Baksh also told the Coast Guard that he knew the drums were filled with heroin but did not mention this to the police, maintaining that Shaukatali had told him the drums contained chemicals.
The two versions recounted by the third fisherman, Alibaksh Allahbaksh, are completely at odds with each other. On April 24, he told the Coast Guard that when he asked Maksood what was in the drums, he was told that they contained heroin that was to be given to a boat coming from Dubai. He has given same statement to the police saying that when he asked he was told the drums contained chemicals.
Mohammad Ahmad and Mohammad Yusuf, who were lured by Shaukatali and Zafar Iqbal, respectively, with the promise of good money, told the Coast Guard that Maksood had told them about the heroin. Mohammad Ahmad added in his statement that when he quizzed Maksood about the drums, he replied that if he consumed what was inside the drums “he would become intoxicated”. To the police, both men repeated being told that the drums contained chemicals.
Both Mohammad Yunus and Mohammad Gulhasan had asked Maksood on the second day of the voyage why they weren’t spreading nets into the water. In reply, the duo was told that they hadn’t set out to fish but to transport heroin and that the nets would be cast on the return journey.
Of the eight, only Gulhasan Mohammad maintained to both the Coast Guard and the police that he was told to transport barrels of oil to a ship coming to Dubai and made no mention of heroin, before admitting to the former that he had transported drugs because he needed the money.
“It has been proven by forensic tests that the contents of the drums that the boat was carrying are heroin. So, it does not matter that the accused have told us that they were transporting chemicals,” said Kiran Kumar Chavan, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Port Zone.