Eleven years after Irshad Ali was accused of terrorism by the Delhi Police, and jailed, he has returned home, finally acquitted of all charges. Those years cannot be returned to him, but justice still can — and for India’s criminal justice system, this case ought to bring a moment of reckoning. For eight years, at least, the criminal justice system itself has had reasons for serious doubt about the charges brought by Delhi Police, against Ali and his co-accused, Mourif Qamar. In 2008, the Central Bureau of Investigation concluded that Ali and Qamar were in fact informers for the Special Cell and Intelligence Bureau, who had been framed by its officials. Litigation led by Delhi Police saw the CBI report contested all the way up to the Supreme Court. In the end, the CBI report, which also recommended the prosecution of officials allegedly responsible for framing Ali and Qamar, was filed in a Delhi Court along with the Delhi Police charges.
The judge kept aside the CBI’s report, but has now, finally, acquitted both men.
Leaving aside the bizarre turns of this case, three elements are key. First, it has taken 11 years to resolve the issue of the two men’s guilt, longer than they would have likely served in prison for their alleged crimes. Judges, prosecutors and defence counsel must take ownership of the problem, and address the painfully slow speed of the system. Second, there is no system in place to monitor and prosecute wrongdoing by police officers. In the Ali-Qamar case, the CBI’s finding of wilful wrongdoing by police officers was simply not taken up.
Third, and perhaps most important, there is no system in India to compensate individuals found to have been wrongful imprisoned.
From experience across the world, it is clear that even well-resourced police forces will sometimes act with malice to inflict harm — and it is what the state does when this happens that ensures its legitimacy. Following the bombing of two pubs in 1974, police in the UK secured the conviction, on the basis of false confessions, of Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill, Patrick Armstrong and Carole Richardson — people subsequent investigation proved to be innocent. In 1989, the convictions were quashed, and the four awarded up to £5,00,000 each in compensation. In a similar case, six men imprisoned for bombings in Birmingham were awarded up to £1.2 million. These and other cases led to a Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in 1991, which brought about extensive reforms. From Malegaon to the 2006 Mumbai train bombings, the evidence shows that the rule of law has been swept aside by a state of chronic and criminal injustice. Inaction insults the republic, and each citizen.