The 29-year-old Mumbai lawyer was arrested under TADA -- even was 18 -- for harbouring Kashmiri radicals; while in Tihar jail, he befriended terrorists Omar Sheikh and Masood Azhar; both men were released in exchange for the passengers and crew abroad the Indian Airlines aircraft hijacked to Kandahar on December 31, 1999.
After dabbling in journalism, Azmi became a lawyer to espouse his convictions. Thus, it is no surprise that he has taken up for some of the accused in the July 11, 2006 train blasts in Mumbai.
In an interview with Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt and Chief Correspondent Syed Firdaus Ashraf, Azmi defends the accused -- Faisal Attaur Rehman Shaikh, his brother Muzzamil, Zameer Latifur Rahman Shaikh, Naved Hussain, Rashid Hussain and Abdul Majeed -- while strongly arguing against the investigation conducted by the Maharashtra police's Anti-Terrorist Squad.
What is your view of the ATS investigation into the 11/7 blasts?
There is no investigation as such. The primary thing on which the entire case rests is the confessional statement of the accused.
Under the special provisions of the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, their confessional statements can be used against them.
However, our basic challenge is to this provision itself, against the trial under this Act. Because, according to us the only definition under which we fall is 'promoting of insurgency'.
We have challenged this definition by way of a writ petition saying that the state government is not competent to enact any legislation on insurgency because insurgency is a threat to national security and any act or offence which poses a threat to national security, regarding that, the only government that can make law is the central government.
Our basic challenge is to this draconian law. Once this draconian law is challenged there is hardly any evidence against the accused.
The only other evidence is of an eyewitness who has been an eyewitness in three other blast cases. How is it possible that this man is always in the right place at the right time? The police claim he has seen people gathering and discussing the making of a bomb.
Who is this witness and where does he hail from?
His name is Ajmeri and he is from Mumbai. According to his earlier deposition he deals in automobile batteries. He claims he saw the accused meeting and talking about planting bombs. Basically, the attempt by the prosecution is to prove a conspiracy.
Apart from him there are no other witnesses. They have one more witness who is gullible. He says he was standing at platform number one at Churchgate station and witnessing the activities on platform number four.
Anybody who belongs to Mumbai will know it is not possible to witness such an act from such a distance and that too during rush hour. Even otherwise, one cannot see what people are doing from platform one to platform four.
What are the major objections you have against the prosecution?
The first and foremost objection is to the confessional statement itself.
Second, I don't know how can this witness (Ajmeri) always be present at the right place at the right time.
Third, how can you accept this sort of gullible witness?
Fourth, I have an objection to the circumstances of the case itself. You see, by July 22, 2006, the police had arrested all these accused but till September 2006 they never made a claim what their link to the blasts was and how it was carried out.
Now a delayed claim -- after three months -- that they have cracked the case puts a question mark on the case.
Remember the Aurangabad arms haul case? Documents prove that those people who have been arrested in the 11/7 case were first named in the Aurangabad arms haul case. The police later found a better opportunity to implicate them in the 11/7 case. They used this opportunity to involve as many people as they could who were already under the scanner.
What was the Aurangabad case about?
The police seized weapons on the Malegaon-Aurangabad highway. It was the first time the name of Faisal Shaikh came up, allegedly the kingpin in the 11/7 case. It was in May 2006. The police arrested the guys who were wanted in the Aurangabad arms haul case and implicated them in 11/7.
If so, how do you explain the Antop Hill encounter where a Pakistani was killed soon after July 11, 2006?
Let me explain. That area is an isolated and sparsely populated place. Nobody stays in that area. Why would a terrorist who wants to hide choose such an area? It is not like he is a petty thief. The police is saying he is a terrorist. Terrorists always hide in places where you find a lot of other people.
In a city like Mumbai, if you live in an isolated place you can avoid people for a day or two but on the third day someone will question your presence there.
According to the police the terrorists were staying there for a month and nobody saw them. It is impossible to stay there. This place is known for staged encounters in Mumbai.
Since you are a defence lawyer, you are expected to say these things.
It is not so. My clients have consistently said they are innocent. Here is one case where I am damn sure that the arrested people are innocent.
Their best years will be destroyed in jails and they will bear the brunt of the case in spite of being innocent.
So, you believe the police has fixed them all?
I will just give you an example. Open Secrets, a book by M K Dhar, former joint director, Intelligence Bureau, claims that they (the Intelligence Bureau) identified Muslim groups who were a potential threat or potentially militant minded.
They then planted their agent and when we see these cases and then analyse we see a common, monotonous thing happen. In every case, you hear the police claim that how Muslims go to Pakistan, take training, acquire arms and it is during the acquisition of arms that they are arrested.
The police say the missions failed. There can be failure of one mission here or there but not a consistent failure of missions since 1992. Somewhere there is a pattern to the manner in which the police works.
How can you make such a claim when actual blasts are taking place? Not all missions fail.
There are clear demarcations where cases have happened and where it has not happened. The cases where blasts have not happened you will see that the people who get caught are cadre-based, like the Students Islamic Movement of India.
Where missions have taken place they are not from organisations. So what has happened? The police have kept an eye on Muslim organisations who could be a potential threat but they have not been able to do anything. They were annihilated and eliminated before that.
Certain sectors where they were not identified, blasts are happening. It is not happening from Muslim jihadi organisation but some other elements like renegades working for the State.
In some cases the police are very lenient in the investigation. Like the Nanded blast, seizure of explosives in Jogeshwari and Ghatkopar, Mumbai. In such cases the police are lenient. But when Muslims are involved police uses different yardsticks.
Don't you think Pakistan is involved in some way?
They are involved in some disruptive activities in India. To blame everything on Pakistan is shunning our own responsibility. Somewhere justice is not being done to every section of people in society.
Do you think a large section of young Muslims are getting attracted to the global perception of jihad?
To some extent it is true that the educated or upwardly mobile section of the Muslim intelligentsia finds a ray of hope in such activities. I don't say on the whole but a miniscule segment have been fascinated by violence.
But it is for a short while. When the truth about violence emerges they get brushed aside.
It is time for the system to introspect why the educated Muslim is taking to violence and not the uneducated kind.
Educated young minds see through the layers in which the government suppresses the truth and to them this system is almost a failure and they might be doing this.
How will you describe Faisal Shaikh?
He is like the boy next door.
Is he deeply religious?
No, no. In fact, there are allegations he had a string of dalliances. He is in no way a global terrorist.
So, how did he get involved in this case?
One's involvement in such cases cannot be because of their acts. Our police, as many internal reports say, is communal. As regards Faisal, there is no evidence of his involvement in 11/7, except his confessional statement and that too, he has retracted.
But he admitted the statement in court.
No, he did not. He was taken to the house of the metropolitan magistrate.
But he could have objected to it?
Not everybody can do that. The best thing is that they can say these things freely in judicial custody. If they are hardcore terrorists, why will they repent their act?
On the one hand you say they are global terrorists and on the other you say they are repenting their act.
I meet Faisal very often. He is one accused whom I was never allowed to meet when he was in police custody.
He always told me, he had nothing to do with the blasts. He was arrested on July 22, 2006, from Mira Road (a satellite town, close to Mumbai, in Thane district). His family was conservative. He was liberal minded. He had a string of dalliances with several girls. He was asked to get married, but he was not getting married. He was an exporter. He used to import dry fruits from Iran. He was never involved in any Islamic religious organisation.
Is it not true that Faisal and his brother Muzzamil may have gone from Iran to Pakistan because he had been to Iran?
No. The Iran-Pakistan border is not as porous as the India-Nepal border. Pakistan has always seen Iran as a threat.
But didn't he go for ziyarat? He is a Sunni Muslim, why would he go to visit Shia holy places?
You see, he went but did not take any offerings, it is gairullah (doing so would mean putting faith in something other than Allah). Sunnis don't take offerings but they visit it.
Who planted the bombs on the trains, according to the police?
Had they been very sure about it, they would have named them in the chargesheet.
What devices were used in the 11/7 blasts?
According to me RDX was not used because the nature of the blast was not such.
Secondly, when the state forensic team visited the site they were not allowed to conduct investigations. It was only when the central team visited they were allowed to investigate and then they said RDX was used.
Who could have perpetrated the blasts then?
Several people. Several people from the Indian intelligence can do it. These people can be within India or outside India who could have gained. They have it in them.
What will they gain?
To stereotype the enemies, that is Islam and Muslims.
The IB won't do it because blasts do not help India's national interests.
It helps those people who want to have stringent laws in India. They want to curb these people who want to have their own different identity, an identity different from that defined by them as national identity.
There also, you are wrong. India's intelligence agencies know that if there are communal disturbances then it is not good for the country.
This is not about profit or loss. It is a particular ideology working in India.
Are you accusing the Indian government?
No, I am not accusing the Indian government but certain elements in the Indian government are doing this.
What do you think society must do to end such problems?
You see, whenever a Muslim seeks justice he should get it. The scale of justice is not evenly balanced in India. You see the Bhagalpur riots, the manner and the way in which it was perpetuated we know but the accused got only a life sentence.