The sky was overcast, but, for the first time in over two decades, they were no longer under cloud, as they stepped out of the Jaipur Central Jail Tuesday, a day after the Rajasthan High Court acquitted them in the 1996 Samleti blast case.
At 5:19 pm Tuesday, Latif Ahmed Waja (42), Ali Bhatt (48), Mirza Nisar (39), Abdul Goni (57) and Rayees Beg (56), stepped out of prison; Beg had been incarcerated since June 8, 1997, while the others were imprisoned between June 17, 1996 and July 27, 1996. During this time, they were lodged in jails in Delhi and Ahmedabad, but were never released on bail.
While acquitting them on Monday, the High Court said the prosecution had failed to provide evidence of conspiracy. It said the prosecution could not establish any link between them and the main accused, Dr Abdul Hameed, whose death sentence was upheld.
After their release Tuesday, the five men said they didn’t know each other until the Criminal Investigation Department (Crime Branch) made them an accused in the case. While Beg is a resident of Agra, Goni is from Doda district of Jammu and Kashmir, and the others are from Srinagar. Before they were jailed, Bhatt had a carpet business, Waja used to sell Kashmiri handicraft in Delhi and Kathmandu, Nisar was a Class IX student and Goni used to run a school.
“We have no idea about the world we are stepping into,” says Goni. “We’ve lost relatives while we were inside. My mother, father and two uncles passed away. We have been acquitted, but who will bring back those years,” says Beg, adding that his sister has since got married and his niece is now about to get married too.
A couple of men hug him and start crying. One is his son, Rizwan, and the other is his brother, Saleem. “We never lost hope all these years,” says Saleem, trying to hold back his tears. “Last night, we couldn’t sleep or eat. The anticipation, and then the paper work, seemed to go on forever,” says Nisar. He claims that he was just 16 years old when he was made an accused, but the officials showed his age as 19 then. Now 39, he says he would like to get married and try to make a fresh start.
Waja says he hasn’t married either, but then points to his bald head and wonders if he will find any bride. The men ask for help to operate a cellphone, so that they can speak to their relatives. Four of them head to the office of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, which they credit with playing a crucial role in their acquittal.
They are offered food, but, after tasting freedom, none of them are hungry. Seeing the hullabaloo around him, Waja says he is bewildered and is yet to process what’s happening. Recounting his time in jail, he says he and Nisar would exercise regularly. Bhatt copied the Quran, twice, and sent one of the copies to his home in Srinagar.
“His youth passed, our parents died, my tears dried up, and I grew old crying for him,” says Goni’s sister Suraiya (62), speaking over the phone from Jammu. “My heart has been beating faster since yesterday. Give me a couple of days, let him come home first, I will tell you everything,” she adds.
The case dates back to May 22, 1996, when a bomb blast in a bus near Samleti village in Dausa, on the Jaipur-Agra highway, killed 14 people and injured 37 others; the bus was headed to Bikaner from Agra. The blast came a day after the Lajpat Nagar bomb blast in Delhi, in which 13 people were killed.
The chargesheet had said the men were associated with the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front and claimed some of them were also involved in the Sawai Man Singh Stadium blast in Jaipur in 1996. “They were named in multiple cases without any basis. They have been acquitted in all the cases — but after 23 years,” says their counsel, Shahid Hasan. Pointing to the delay, he says the trial only began in 2011.
While 12 people were accused in the Samleti case, seven have been acquitted so far. While one was acquitted in 2014, six were acquitted on Tuesday. However, the sixth person, Javed Khan, who is in Tihar Jail, is still an accused in the Lajpat Nagar blast case. Two others who were accused have been discharged, while one has since died. The High Court bench of Justice Sabina and Justice Goverdhan Bardar upheld the death sentence to Dr Abdul Hameed and life sentence to Pappu Salim, a former approver who turned hostile.