Amid the rough and tumble of life inside Navi Mumbai’s Taloja Road jail, far from the recent attacks on Africans in the national capital region, 118 Somali men have found companionship and hope. They have managed to learn English, Hindi and a smattering of Marathi, and begun to enjoy the varan-bhaat (dal chawal), even if the lentils are watery.
These 118 were among 120 Somali pirates apprehended by the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard in four separate anti-piracy operations between January and March 2011 near the Lakshwadeep coast; two died of tuberculosis. Six years later, the trial against them is ending at a Mumbai court with the men having agreed to plead guilty, some to murder charges.
It is arguably the most number of foreign undertrials in a single case anywhere in the country. Some of them expect to walk free, having already served their sentence as undertrials. Others could be sent home to Somalia to complete the remainder of their term, if convicted.
Their clothes in tatters, some with bullets lodged in their bodies from past incidents, these men had earned the sympathy of other undertrials. “They could not speak the language, they came from a poor country and had no family or friends here. So most prisoners offered them help,” says a former inmate of Taloja.
With no intervention from the Somali Embassy for the first few months, the men had to depend on others to buy basic supplies from the prison canteen, including soap or toothpaste. “They began helping other inmates, washing their clothes or sweeping the premises, to get access to amenities,” says the former inmate.
Soon, the other inmates also began to teach the Somalis. “For nearly a year, every day, we taught them. We began with A for apple, B for ball. Most had never had any formal education,” says one inmate. Among the “teachers” were former Indian Navy officer Emile Jerome Mathew, then facing trial for the alleged murder of TV producer Neeraj Grover; some of the Malegaon 2008 blast case accused; and, the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts case accused.
Many of the Somalis started playing football and volleyball in the open area of the prison. Recently, they performed a traditional Somali dance at a cultural programme in prison.
“During court appearances, they would constantly ask, ‘Humko wapas kab bhejoge?’, or ‘Aamhala kadhi sodnaar (When will we be released)?’,” says Rajaram Yadav, former court officer at Mumbai’s Yellow Gate police station.
When the Somalis were herded into Yellow Gate station for the first time, they were sent straight to judicial custody — there was no interrogation to be done. With no space at Arthur Road jail, where 26/11 terrorist Ajmal Kasab was lodged at the time, the 120 were transferred to the newly constructed jail in Navi Mumbai, with a capacity of 2,124 male inmates.
There, the men struggled with the staple of rotis, sabzi, dal and rice, and senior jail officials had to intervene. A special tender was passed to order bread, though the rest of the diet remained the same. “They love bananas, they eat the fruit with relish,” says one jail staffer.
The next problem was the logistical nightmare involved in transporting the men to the court in South Mumbai, 45 km from Taloja. “Each man was accompanied by 1-2 police guards. At least 10-15 police vans would be deployed. A little over half of the Navi Mumbai Police’s available escorts would have to be put on duty on a single case,” says Yadav, the former court officer at Yellow Gate.
Inside a small courtroom, lawyers and policemen found ingenious ways to accommodate the accused and the 180-200 police escorts. “They were brought in batches from the police vans. In one case, there are 61 accused. A queue of policemen would stand on either side of the judge, one queue lined up between the lawyers and the accused,” says special public prosecutor Ranjeet Sangle.
At each hearing, the men would file up to 50 applications, seeking bail, release, expeditious trial or medical treatment.
Mohammed Abdulahi Barre, for instance, filed multiple applications, one of them to be freed to contact his parents. Mukhtar Yusuf Ali told court he had been trapped by a private broker who had promised to take him to Dubai for $850 for a “better life”. Two years ago, after the Somalis reportedly created a ruckus, the court ordered that they be produced only through video-link.
The prosecution would have interpreters, mainly Somali students from Pune University, two per hearing. They were paid a stipend of Rs 3,000 each per day. However, since student visas restricted their movement outside Pune, the Yellow Gate police had to approach the Security Branch in Pune for permission every time there was a hearing.
“These students were in India on grants of the Somali government. They were concerned that if they helped the Indian government against their countrymen, their grants could be suspended. I spoke to the then Ambassador, who assured us no such step would be taken against the students,” says Sangle.
Another hurdle the prosecution faced was in getting the victims of the four pirate ships to depose. There were in all 73 hostages — citizens of Iran, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Mozambique, Thailand and Pakistan. Before returning to their countries, at least 11 gave statements before a magistrate under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code. However, they did not come to depose during the trial despite offers of remuneration for travel, food and stay. The 80-odd witnesses examined until now include mainly officials of the Navy and Coast Guard.
At the start of the trial, the Somali Embassy did not engage a defence lawyer. The court appointed advocate Suraj Hulke as amicus curiae, who examined over 77 witnesses for the accused until August 2016. Then the accused suddenly told the court they wanted to plead guilty.
Hulke claims the Embassy did not consult him on this decision. Last year, advocate Vishwajeet Singh representing the Somali Embassy told the court that the men were willing to give an undertaking that they would not cross-examine the remaining witnesses, nor appeal against the sentence unless it was the death penalty.
Ahmed Mohammed, first secretary to the Embassy of Somalia in New Delhi, told The Indian Express that they expect an expedited trial after which a decision will be taken on taking the men back home. “We are expecting the trial to end in the following months,” he says.
The reasons for the guilty pleas are not clear but today, the men are counting the days to when they return home. “I read last week that over 100 people have died recently in Somalia due to drought. We do not know what the conditions for them will be when they return. But they are hopeful of going back to their families and not looking back at their criminal pasts,” says one jail official.