Brings spotlight on countless victims of malicious prosecution

Abdul Bari Masoud writes that Aryan Khan’s acquittal has forcefully brought the spotlight on thousands of innocent persons who are languishing in prisons without any trial, and raises the very pertinent question that the acquitted should be duly compensated and the guilty police and investigating officials should be brought to justice.

The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) arrested Aryan Khan, film star Shah Rukh Khan’s son, in a narcotics racket case in Mumbai in October 2021. After several twists and turns in the case, a special investigation team from Delhi gave him and five others a clean chit on May 28. Aryan Khan’s story not only brought attention to himself and his family’s suffering, but also to the countless victims of malicious prosecution, many of whom are defenceless and hapless.

Aryan’s acquittal has forcefully brought the spotlight on thousands of innocent persons who are languishing in prisons without any trial.  According to human rights activists, around 70% of the detainees are awaiting trial. Three-quarters of them had been incarcerated for more than a year. Over the last five years, 5,011 people have been imprisoned awaiting trial.

On May 27, NCB filed a charge sheet in a special court in Mumbai, although Aryan Khan was not named in the ‘drug on cruise’ case. On October 3, 2021, the 23-year-old and two others were arrested and imprisoned for more than three weeks. The Bombay High Court granted them bail on October 28. It was ordered that they be freed from the Arthur Road Jail after executing a bond of `1 lakh each with one or more sureties.

According to a press note released by the agency, “All accused were found in possession of narcotics except Aryan (Khan) and Mohak. The touchstone of the principle of proof beyond reasonable doubt has been applied. Based on which a complaint has been filed against 14 accused and a complaint against six (including Aryan Khan) is not filed due to lack of sufficient evidence.”

Arbaaz Merchant, Munmun Dhamecha, and 12 others were mentioned in the 6000-page charge sheet. NCB authorities said Aryan and five others were not mentioned in the agency’s charge sheet due to a “lack of sufficient proof”.

On March 28, the agency asked the special Narcotics Drugs Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act court for more time to file a charge sheet in the drug case busted on October 2 at the International Cruise Terminal in Mumbai, when 13 grammes of cocaine, five grammes of MD (mephedrone), 21 grammes of charas, 22 pills of MDMA, and $133,000 in cash were seized.

On November 6, 2021, the case was handed to a special investigative team (SIT), whose chief, Sanjay Singh, stated on March 2 that it was far too early to conclude that there was no evidence against Aryan Khan in the case.

The SIT was guided by the idea of “beyond reasonable doubt,” according to NCB Director General S.N. Pradhan, who stated during a news conference that there was insufficient evidence against six of the 20 accused defendants. As a result, the charge sheet was submitted against 14 other people within the time limit. A second one would be presented if the investigation team discovered any new evidence.

It is to recall that Aryan Khan, along with eight others, was charged with Sections 8 (c) – prohibition to produce, manufacture, possess, sell, purchase, transport, warehouse, use, consume, import inter-State, export inter-State, import into India, export from India or tranship any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance, 20 (b) – punishment for contravention in relation to cannabis plant and cannabis produces, manufactures, possesses, sells, purchases, transports, imports inter-State, exports inter-State or uses cannabis, 27 – punishment for consumption of any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance, 28 – punishment for attempts to commit offences and 29 – punishment for abetment and criminal conspiracy read with 35 – presumption of culpable mental state of the NDPS Act.

Now this long list of charges against Aryan and others was proved that it was a malevolent and malicious act of the investigating officer.

The case has once again raised the very pertinent question that if those who have been falsely framed should be duly compensated and the guilty officials should be brought to justice.

Hundreds of young people’s lives have been wrecked by the prosecution officers’ malicious acts in fake terror cases.

Former Supreme Court Judge Justice Madan Lokur, who took strong notice of the country’s alarming state of criminal justice, saying the police and prosecution are crossing the Laxman Rekha in India, and the higher judiciary must overhaul the criminal justice system.

“Time has come for the judiciary to make the police accountable. Enough is enough. Somebody said something in Bengaluru. Why arrest that person and bring him to Delhi? What for? You just cannot do this,” Justice Lokur, who is known for calling a spade a spade, told a news channel.

“Time has come for the judiciary to pull up its socks and do something about it. It can’t get worse. Everybody has to reform. I don’t know where it starts or who starts it but the higher courts have to take the lead. If nobody takes the lead, we’re sunk,” he added.

Reacting on Aryan’s acquittal, Senior Congress leader and former Union Home Minister P Chidambaram posed a question: “How could he be arrested and imprisoned for 25 days without evidence.”

Chidambaram tweeted in Tamil that is roughly translated into English as follows:

“The investigation agency has withdrawn the charge against Shahrukh Khan’s son Aryan. Reason: No evidence. How could he be arrested and imprisoned for 25 days without evidence?”

He wondered who will bear responsibility for the young man’s emotional turmoil, claiming that in many cases; the arrest comes first, followed by the inquiry, a “perversion” of the legal procedure.

It is now widely acknowledged that there was no proof against Aryan Khan, said Chidambaram.

“Who will be held accountable for the young man’s trauma?” the former home minister said.

“Arrests must be made as a result of the investigation. Regrettably, in many cases, arrest takes precedence over investigation,” he stated.

Another Congress leader and chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala also came down heavily on the Modi government and its subservient media, particularly news channels which played a “dirty role” after Aryan was arrested.

Surjewala tweeted, “Art of News plants by Govt Agencies, Fallacious nature of News debates, Ruining of reputation without proof, Holding people guilty without trial, This is – New India!”

Meanwhile, human rights activists have criticised the NDPS Act saying it is  a harsh law that favours incarceration over bail.

Sadique Qureshi, a Mumbai-based lawyer and activist, told Radiance that the essence of criminal law justice is bail, not jail. However, we are increasingly seeing trial judges becoming overwhelmed by the presence of the prosecution, and public prosecutors as a result of this, trial courts are not deciding cases on their merits, he added and cited the Delhi riots cases to buttress his point.

Being a son of super star, Aryan Khan was represented by a battery of the best lawyers in the country, and the case had generated a lot of buzz and it had become a political slugfest.  Thousands of innocent persons languishing in prisons, on the other hand, lack such privileges because they are not the children of famous and wealthy dads who can afford expensive legal defence.

Aryan’s acquittal has triggered the debate that whether those who have been wrongfully convicted should be compensated? For unjust and malicious prosecution, the role of investigating officers and agencies should be probed? Whether India needs a new law to decide on the quantum of compensation?

As there are hundreds of young men framed in terror cases who were found innocent after they had spent their precious part of life in jails. Mumbai based teacher Abdul Wahid Shaikh is one among them who was exonerated after spending nine-years in jail. He was falsely accused in the 11 July 2006 Mumbai train bombings case. He wrote a book namely ‘Begunah Qaidi’ when he was incarcerated in Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail. The English translation of his book titled ‘Innocent Prisoners’ was released recently. Speaking with Radiance, Shaikh said he highlighted in the book the role of agencies and police tactics on implicating innocent people, fabricating false evidence against them and use torture of victims and the immoral pressure on their relatives to force them to confess to crimes they never committed or implicate other innocents.

He also resolved to fight the legal battle for his and other victims’ freedom.

In the Aryan case, NCB Director General S.N. Pradhan admitted that there were serious loopholes in the initial probe, which was carried out under the supervision of then Mumbai zonal director Sameer Wankhede.  Although, the Maharashtra government has recommended appropriate action against Wankhede but whether that is enough?

A majority of these victims belong to the Muslim community. In this backdrop, the treatment of minorities, particularly Muslims, is a major source of concern.

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