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The Rediff Special/Venu Menon

Sinner or sinned against? The tangled tale of Mariam Rasheeda

Mariam Rasheeda A year after the court set her free, Mariam Rasheeda, a Maldives national, still languishes in a Kerala prison. She was arrested two and a half years ago for overstaying and on suspicion of being a spy.

Her friend, Fouzia Hassan, is also in jail for suspected espionage. The charge could not be proved and the court let off the two women. But they remained in prison in view of other suits pending against them. Eventually, Fouzia was cleared of all charges and released, only to be re-arrested under the National Security Act. Mariam, who faces defamation charges, remains in custody. She has not be been able to raise the Rs 20,000 necessary for bail.

The extended incarceration of the two women is a sequel to an executive order passed by the Kerala government to re-investigate what has come to be known as the ISRO spy scandal involving the two Maldives women and four Indian nationals, two of them senior scientists of the Indian Space Research Organisation at Thiruvananthapuram.

The Kerala government had entrusted the investigation to the CBI. The agency contradicted the findings of the Kerala police and rejected the espionage charge as false and baseless. The chief judicial magistrate's court at Ernakulam discharged the case on the basis of the CBI report. The Kerala government then issued an executive order to re-investigate the case, which was ratified by the chief judicial magistrate of Thiruvananthapuram. The six accused challenged the government order in the Supreme Court.

The fate of the two Maldivian nationals and four others will be decided by the Supreme Court this week when the case comes up for final hearing. The apex court has stayed the operation of the state government's executive order.

It all began when Mariam Rasheeda reported to the Foreigners Registration Office, attached to the Thiruvananthapuram city police commissionerate, on October 8, 1994 to extend her stay in India. Maldives nationals are exempted from visa regulations for a period of 90 days from the date of arrival, after which they must obtain official sanction to stay on. Mariam's last date was October 17, 1994. She had confirmed air tickets to fly on that date, but the plague scare had forced the airlines to cancel their flights.

Inspector Vijayan, who manned the FRO cell, took possession of Mariam's passport and air tickets. Two days later, the officer dropped in at room 205 of Hotel Samrat where Mariam was staying with her friend Fouzia. Mariam claims the policeman made sexual advances which she rebuffed. On October 20 she was summoned to the commissioneate and arrested on arrival. She was charged with violating Rule 7 of the Foreigners Order and Section 14 of the Foreigners Act and a case was registered at the Vanchiyoor police station.

On March 13, 1994, another case was registered for alleged espionage activity. Included as co-accused were Fouzia, ISRO scientists Sasikumar and Nambi Narayanan, Bangalore-based businessman S S Sharma and Russian space agency Glavkosmos representative Chandrashekar. A special police team was constituted to investigate the cases which were subsequently handed over to the CBI at the state government's request. Mariam's counsel Prasad Gandhi contends that Inspector Vijayan seized her passport and air tickets to prevent her from flying on October 17, the last permissible day of her stay in the country.

Inspector Vijayan justifies his action on grounds of national security. He says telephone print-outs obtained from Hotel Samrat indicated that Mariam was in frequent touch with ISRO scientist Sasikumar. A diary belonging to her contained suspicious entries in her handwriting. There were names of Maldivian nationals involved in subversive activities against Maldives President Abdul Qayyum. During interrogation, Mariam mentioned a women called Suhara of Colombo, who the police identified as an ISI agent. All this strengthened the suspicion of espionage.

Vijayan denies Mariam's allegation of sexual misconduct when he questioned her in the hotel room. He also dismisses the torture charge, saying he was told by Intelligence Bureau officials to leave the interrogation room.

Taking cognisance of the various versions, Ernakulam Chief Judicial Magistrate Mohana Rajan acquitted Mariam of the charge of overstaying. The judgment dated November 14, 1995 observed that Inspector Vijayan had seized her air tickets for the purpose of arresting her for overstaying, that the police had willfully obstructed her from leaving the country. On May 2, 1996, the court discharged the accused in the espionage case for lack of evidence to sustain the charge.

The ISRO spy scandal left a trail of ruined reputations. It proved the undoing of then chief minister K Karunakaran, whose open patronage of Inspector General of Police Raman Srivastava hurt his public ratings at the time The police had linked Srivastava to Mariam Rasheeda. The two scientists, Sasikumar and Nambi Narayanan, have since been transferred out of Thiruvananthapuram. And the Kerala police faced a crisis of credibility in the wake of an adverse judicial verdict.

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Mariam's tale

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