Mohammed Azam

 (Asim Rafiqui)Mohammed Ajmal and Mohammed Azam (above) were sentenced to death in 2004 for armed robbery and the murder of man while trying to make their escape. The conviction, based on the evidence presented by three witnesses from the murdered man’s family, ignored the fact that there was no evidence, no ballistic details, and biased witnesses. They were initially held for nearly four months for questioning, and were brutally tortured. Having failed to elicit a confession, and despite a lack of evidence, the police – most likely influenced by local political bigwigs, who in turn were pressured by the dead man’s family, filed a case against them and placed them in jail. The court, after a two year examination of the case, sentenced them to death.

They rather torture you then spend time investigating the crime. We are sitting in a spasely furnished formal sitting room – two charpois face each other, and a glass vase with plastic flowers sits on a wooden shelf on the wall in front of me. The walls are painted a pale yellow, and I can’t help but think of the moment when the family was discussing selecting the color. After the shootings my brothers and I fled into hiding. We were scared because all our neighbours started to accuse us of the murder. Azam is a handsome man. He has a self-confidence that takes me by surprise when I first met him. Walking into the sitting room, he carried himself with an uprightness, alertness and strength that suggested a man who knew himself and his place in the community. We were young boys really, and did not know what to do. So we fled. We thought that it would blow over, or that we could ask our relatives for advice. His Urdu is perfect – careful in fact, and his sentences arranged with a delicacy far beyond what I would have expected. He speaks beautifully. But once we received the news that the police had arrested our mother and taken her to the lockup, it was too much for us. You have to understand that our honor was now being trodden on – our mother, who was already old and ill, was humiliated by the police and dragged to the station. We could not tolerate this – and the police knew that this humiliation would bring us to them. And it did. We gave ourselves up. That was when the torture began.

A man brings us some tea. The steaming hot cups are a welcome sight in the cold sitting room. There is sunlight coming in from a window to my right, but at this hour in the morning it is still weak, and at an angle away from me. I pick up a cup and grasp in both hands, and let it sit there.

It’s just about expediency. They rather extract a confession out of you then take the effort to go and investigate the crime. There is repair work going on in the house, and some men are paving the front stoop of the house. Azam peiordically interrupts his conversation to shout some instructions at the men. I suspect the men are distracted by our conversation and are trying to eavsdrop. We spent three days tied to a wall, our hands over our heads. The local chaudhary instructed each police sergeant that they were to use their time with us to extract a confession. Azam’s voice is controlled, and he speaks with a calmly, as if wanting me to take in each word, feel each moment he is trying to describe. For the next three days we were brutally beaten, and when that was not enough, they would use the rollers on us. He gets up from the charpoi and sits on the floor to demonstrate the procedure. It’s a simple technique – two men grab your feet, two your hands, and they lay you on the concrete floor. The other two men take a metal pipe – a thin one, and place it over your thigh muscles. He is staring into my eyes, as if daring me to look at him, to understand what had been done to him. And then they both stand on it and roll it back and forth. Your leg muscles are soon reduced to jelly, and you cannot imagine the pain. He gets up off the floor and dusts off his clothes. His tea is getting cold, but he takes a sip and sits down again, facing me, leaning towards me. What was worse was to have to watch my brother suffer this. One can withstand pain, but to see someone you love undergo it is often too much. But we had nothing to confess, we had not committed the crime. There is a look of triump – as if he has conquered that moment again. After three days of this – without sleep, being beaten, being tortured, the chaudhary himself acknowledged that he was wrong about us and that we were innocent. He promised that he would write that in his report.

I look out the door and see the workmen leaning against their tools. They are no longer pretending to work but intently listening in on our conversation. When they removed us from our chains after six days, the chaudhary did not keep his word – he did not accuse us of the crime, but he did not absolve us of it either. They transferred us to another police investigation center and once again subjected us to beatings and mistreatment at the hands of the next group of police. Pervaiz, the young man who has been working with me these last many days, gets up and leave the room. I hear him ask someone for a light – he needs a cigarette. They wanted to extract something from us and yet we kept insisting that we had not committed the crime. But it was clear that the other party wanted to implicate us and were influencing the police officers. I hear the sound of a match being lit. We spent nearly 4 months like this, moving from one police station to another, facing mistreatment and beatings, but we were clearly not involved. Eventually even the police had to accept that we were not the culprits they were looking for.

The workmen are now looking in through the window – four young boys glare at us through the bars of the window, occassionally whispering to each other, occassionally breaking into smiles. Despite all this, a case was filed against us, and we were placed in prison where we spent two years. All this only on the basis of money and influence. What else did the police have to hold against us? We have no guns, they were no real witnesses, it was a nighttime, it was foggy and we were asleep at home. That was all there was to it. Perwaiz is back. Perwaiz and Azam know each other from their days in prison, though Azam had a more difficult time remembering him. But I am here, in this room, and listening to this story because of men like Perwaiz – men who made friends while in prison, and won the trust and affection of the other prisoners. Azam trusts him, and as a result, he trusts me. These accusations emerge from a distant family enmity that had nothing to do with this case. On the basis of the evidence there was no reason to keep us imprisoned. And certainly, there was absolutely no reason for the death sentence that came two years later and simply left us in shock.

Azam is quiet for a while. The men at the window have been told to get back to work. I hear the rhythmic sound of shovel against dirt, the low grunts of men working to move earth. My brother and I spent three years on death row, three years in which my family lost most everything. When we heard that sentence, I promise you, I felt nothing. I just surrendered to God and asked him to care for my family from then on. Reliving that moment seems to have worried  him – his face has gone tense, his hands are clenched. This is the first time since he started telling me his story that I see him appear discomfitted, and uncertain. I surrendered to God, and I am still in his mercy. We have been out of prison for four years now – our reconciliation was accomplished by borrowing money from neighbors and friends, but I am still in God’s mercy and still grateful to him for saving us. His lips move quietly, as if he is saying a prayer to himself. I can’t be sure, but I don’t ask. Only He could have, and He did.