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.
I was just in my early twenties when this entire episode happened. We are talking now in 2004. I had only recently managed to complete my 10th grade education (matriculation) a few months earlier. Ajmal meets us in the formal sitting room of his family home. It has taken us two days to find him – we suspected that they were avoiding meeting me out of fear. There is great fear here in these rural communities of the Punjab – a fear of the outsider, a fear of the city man, a fear of those who appear rich and well off. Perwaiz, my contact who is helping me locate ex-death row prisoners, suspects that Ajmal and his brother had simply gone into hiding. We are a simple family, so sending children to school – any school, is an achievement. But that night really changed our lives. And hope we may have had of educating our children, or building different lives, were lost back then. We finally tracked him down, and we finally got him and his brother to agree to meet us. Perwaiz had been with them in prison, and Ajmal remembered him. Nevertheless, it took some convincing for them to agree to finally see us, and to let us into their home.
There was an armed robbery in the neighborhood – it must have been around midnight or 1:00 am at night. We were fast asleep in our homes when we heard a lot of gunfire. The robbers were given chase by members of the family they had looted and in the ensuing exchange of fire the thieves injured 5 men and 1 other seriously. The latter soon died from his wounds. When Ajman and I first met, he was clearly nervous and perhaps even regretting his decision to agree to meet with me. I could sense his uncertainty – his furtive looks, his clammy hands when I shook them, and the rather childlike way he sat down on the charpoi ready to face my questions. We had heard the noise and so we rushed out to see what had gone on. My brother went to help the injured men and came across the dead man. He tried to help move the body, but in the confusion – it was late, dark, and foggy, we tried to move the bodies but soon heard a lot of commotion and angry voices screaming to know why we were still hanging about since we had committed this crime! He ordered tea, and we sat and stared at each other for a while. Perwaiz tried to make some small talk, but Ajmal was not interested. He kept turning towards me, and just looking as if he was trying to evaluate who I was and if what I said was the truth. I then decided to tell him what I was there to do, why I had wanted to meet him. He listened, saying nothing, but just sitting and nodding his head. It was a very shocking moment for us – to see our neighbors starting to collect and accuse us of having killed one from our own village.
A group of men stand outside – I don’t know who they are but their shadows fall across the alcove. I hear them whispering, lighting cigarettes and clearing their throats. They had arrived with Ajmal – perhaps the friends whose home he had hidden in? Why would anyone carry out a robbery of this nature in their own village? Why kill our own people? We are sitting in a small, cold formal living room built just outside the main compound of Ajmal’s family home. I can hear the sound of children playing inside, and someone washing dishes. It’s true that we had an earlier confrontation with the family who lost one of their men. It was an entirely different matter, and had nothing to do with us, but with a distance relative of ours. It was some question of a girl, and someone from our family who had fallen in love. When I asked him to tell me about their case, he tried to brush me off by saying that there was no point in going over old histories. That he saw no benefit in it. We had stayed away from that entire episode, we had no earlier entanglements with these people. So why they suddenly decided, in the heat of the moment, that we were the culprits I will never understand.
We sit quietly. Perwaiz shifts uncomfortably in his chair. I am trying hard to think how to move this conversation forward. We have spent hours driving out here, trying to locate these me, to hear their stories. I feel a bit lost realizing that despite the time and effort, I may have to leave here with nothing. There are no lights here on the streets. These villages don’t have such facilities. They could not have identified the men even if they had tried. And we went there to help them – my elder brother was in their homes trying to help with the injured and the dead. But the next thing we know they are accusing us.
I need to know what happened – I find myself saying. I need to know because I need to tell other people what happens to those who are sentenced to prison. Ajmal looks at me sceptically. Nobody really cares, I hear him retort. He smiles. When they arrested us we were held at the station for days – and tortured and beaten. When the accusation is murder, when a 302 could be issued (code for the crime of murder), the police are even harder on you. Ok, I said, so no one cares, but that is not reason enough not to speak out. Ajmal remains quiet. Perwaiz, sitting on a chair in the corner of the room, asks if we could all have some tea. Ajmal nods and gets up to get some from the kitchen. This case had attracted a lot of media and television attention and the police made a real show of us. They paraded us in front of the cameras as if we were major dacoits – as if the police had made a major breakthrough. I look at Perwaiz with concern, but he is smiling and winks at me. Be patient, he says. He will talk to you.
The room is cold. The cement bricks can’t keep the early morning coldness away, and in fact, seem to trap it inside. The sun is shining outside and I would prefer to warm myself in it, but I am afraid of breaking up the meeting. I am afraid of allowing Ajmal to drift too far away. Later they beat us here at the local thana (police station), then at the station in Okara – the local chaudhary really mistreated us – we still can’t really walk or stand properly even after all these years. But we insisted on our innocence. They were certain we were the culprits – it was our word against the other family – and that family has connections and influence in this community. When Ajmal returns he seems different – more sure of himself, and more relaxed. Did he speak to someone inside? His brother has not joined us – they were in prison together. Perhaps he has said something? Nothing we said would convince them, and they went ahead and filed a case against us. Once they issue the First Information Report (FIR), there is really no turning back. Here, in these areas, and with this police, the FIR becomes the truth, and you are guilty until proven innocent.
He sits with us, and we wait for the tea to arrive. The room feels colder, but Ajmal seems more relaxed. When we taken to the court, the lawyers made a real show of us. He spoke about our powerful political influence in the community, and how we were using our money and connections to get signed statements of innocence from the police. I take out my note book and place it on the charpoi – and I wait. That the court had to make an example of us. The judge believed it all, and I suspect that he was being influenced by the political connections of our opponents. Perwaiz asks for a cigarette and lights it. He starts to talk about their time in prison, and then other men they knew and where they may be today. They had already succeeding in keeping the case going despite the police finding us innocent. They just kept moving it from police station to police station and then into the courts.
Perwaid knew most of the men I was meeting. It was the only way for me to get many of these men to speak. Most remained afraid that speaking out may create further problems for them. All were simply grateful for having escpaed the gallows and wanted no further trouble with the authorities. They were all quietly rebuilding their lives. The case took two years and we will never understand what overcame the judge, but he sentenced both of us to death. No evidence was ever offered. They knew we had no weapons. They had witnesses from their own family claim that they had seen us. But it was also hard to refuse the request of an old comrade, someone who had supported and helped them inside the prison, and had been a source of strength and encouragement. That I was sitting there with one such man – Perwaiz, made it difficult for them to refuse. They owed each other, and they knew that saying no would be a betrayal. There is a code of honor amongst the inmates, and its carries into life. They police had searched everywhere – we have no weapons. We were students in those days. My brother left school and was working the lands, because our father had died a little earlier.
The tea arrives – it is hot, and it is welcome. The atmosphere of the room feels more congenial as we each take a cup. Everyone here knows that we were and are innocent. People here know that it was a false claim. Finally they agreed to reconcile once we paid them reconciliation money. We paid them. I ask again – will you tell me about what happened and about your years in prison? I see him look at me and he nods. Yes, if you feel that it can help others, then I will tell you what happened. We had to borrow a lot of funds to make it happen. Funds we still owe and are trying to pay off slowly over time. The people have been kind and helpful in this regard. This was our fate, and we lost so much in the process – half our lands, our livestock, our younger brothers had to leave schools as all the money went towards paying legal fees, travel costs and what not.
There is a grace about him. And a strength that comes not from his strong frame, but from the steeliness of his eyes, the clenched and hard edges of his face. He speaks slowly, as if measuring each word. Our name, our home and our honor is stained. Watching our mother – old and frail, visiting us in the prison, facing the abuse of the police, suffering the travel, the long waits was too difficult to bear. We must have spent over Rs 15 lakh ($15,600) at least in the process of fees, travels and such. We have had to borrow at least another Rs 3 lakh ($3,000) to pay for our reconciliation and we are still paying that off. When he begins to tell me the story he sinks back into the charpoi as if to relax, and prepare for a long talk. His tea cup remains close to his lips, as if hiding them. He stares out of the window behind me. Thankfully our friends have not demanded immediate payment on that. So slowly we are trying to put this family back together, get ourselves back on our feet. The episode took place over four years ago, but now as Ajmal starts to speak I see its sorrows, its scars appear on his face. I feel that he is being transported back to a place where he has avoided returning. I realize that his reluctance to speak came from the fact that he has still not recovered from that experience. It remains a nightmare. When my brother and I finally came out we had nothing – our home was in ruins, our remaining lands were fallow, our younger siblings were just sitting at home, uneducated and uncertain about what to do next. We have paid a heavy price just because of this entire episode. It has forever changed our lives. He is still living with the nightmare.
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