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India's Hands Aren't Clean

Rohan Oberoi studied physics at Cornell University and subsequently took up software engineering.

The Los Angeles Times, Jan. 9, 2000

Hijacking: Freed 'terrorists' were never even charged, despite years in detention.

The U.S. State Department describes the first tenet of its counter-terrorism policy this way: 'Make no concessions to terrorists and strike no deals.'

So why didn't the State Department complain when the Indian government struck a deal with the hijackers of Indian Airlines Flight 814 and agreed to release three prisoners in exchange for 155 hostages?

If you believe the reports, three dangerous terrorists walked free in exchange for the hostages.

Yet State Department officials did not point out that the release may encourage more terrorism. Nor did they call for hunting the three down, though they did call for the hijackers to be brought to justice.

In fact, they said nothing at all about the prisoner release. This doesn't begin to make sense until you realize what was left unsaid and why.

It is this: The three men were not terrorists. Not only were they never tried or convicted of any act of terrorism, but they never even were charged. All three were arrested in 1994 or earlier, so the Indian government had enough time to file charges, if it wanted to.

Their long detention was in stark violation of international law, which prohibits arbitrary arrest, requires charges to be filed 'promptly' and requires trial or release within a 'reasonable time.'

Recognizing this, the British Foreign Office announced that the one Briton among the three, 26-year-old Ahmad Omar Sayed Sheikh, is free to return to Britain, like any other British citizen who faces no criminal charges.

If Sheikh does return to Britain, Indian officials could not seek his extradition without bringing formal charges.

If they did, Sheikh's family, who have always protested his innocence, could contest the extradition on the grounds that charges not filed during the six years he was in custody but suddenly filed after he escaped are in all likelihood specious.

The whole thing could blow up in India's face, and Sheikh's case could become a public reminder to the West of India's regular violations of international law in its treatment of those it arrests, particularly supporters of Kashmiri independence.

Those simply detained indefinitely are the lucky ones. Many are killed as soon as they are arrested, while others die in custody. The government can pin wild charges on them because it never has to actually file the charges or try to prove them in court.

For example, Mushtaq Zargar, another of the three released, was arrested in 1992 and accused of being the 'chief commander' of a terrorist group called the Umar Moujahedeen.

The same year, police arrested another man, Mohammad Zargar, and accused him of being the 'deputy chief' of the same Umar Moujahedeen.

The day after confirming his arrest to the press, Indian officials announced Mohammad Zargar had been killed in an encounter 'soon after his arrest.' It was an official admission of custodial assassination and was reported in the Indian press and picked up by Amnesty International.

Mushtaq Zargar merely languished in detention for eight years, until his release after the hijacking.

Since neither he nor his dead 'deputy' was charged or tried, we don't know if they really were terrorists or just Kashmiris whom the Indian government wanted to put away.

Another man, Sajjad Afghani, also imprisoned without charge for several years, was killed last June 'while trying to escape' from a high-security prison. His death may have motivated this hijacking, according to sources in the Indian press.

The hijackers demanded Afghani's body and also the release of his colleague, Maulana Masood Azhar, whom they may have feared would be the next person to die 'while trying to escape.'

All this raises troubling questions, such as: When a state shoots people or locks them up indefinitely without due process, how is that state distinguishable from a terrorist organization? Or when a state indiscriminately wields deadly violence against guilty and innocent alike, would it not generate such hatred against itself as to provoke desperate, irrational and dangerous responses? Like, say, hijacking a plane?

So, if we want to prevent international terrorism, shouldn't we be trying to prevent violations of international law by the Indian government as energetically as we try to chase down hijackers?

Such inconvenient questions might stand in the way of the State Department officials' stated goal of 'working with India' to 'combat international terrorism.' And so they keep quiet.