After spending 12 years incarcerated, the two men that Faheem Ansari was really keen to meet as he stepped out of Bareilly Central Jail last November were Shaheed Azmi and Hemant Karkare. He couldn’t, of course, as both of them had fallen prey to bullets while he was in prison. While Karkare, then head of the Mumbai Anti Terrorism Squad, was shot dead during the 2008 attack on the city, Shahid, a lawyer, was assassinated by unidentified men at his office in Kurla, Mumbai, on February 11, 2010. The assailants had come posing as prospective clients.
I received a call from a journalist friend informing me of Shahid’s murder that evening. In just a few hours, the news of the assassination was all over the media. “26/11 accused Faheem Ansari’s lawyer Shahid Azmi shot dead,” read the headline of a report by news agency PTI. At the time of his killing, Shahid represented Faheem, accused of having drawn up maps that had helped the 26/11 terrorists, including Ajmal Kasab, in carrying out the attack. Shahid’s able defence saw Ansari acquitted in May 2010 but the lawyer did not live to bear witness to it.
Faheem wasn’t the only person accused of terror whom Shahid represented. Nor was he the only one he helped acquit. Shahid was involved in defending the accused in the 2002 Ghatkopar bombing, 7/11 Mumbai train blasts, 2006 Aurangabad arms haul, and 2006 Malegaon bombing. He secured the acquittal of 17 men charged with terrorism in just seven years as a lawyer.
Many believe, rightly so in my view, that he was shot dead because of his work. In an email conversation, Letta Tayler, a researcher on terrorism with the Human Rights Watch and an author of the report The “Anti-Nationals”: Arbitrary Detention and Torture of Terrorism Suspects in India, told me that when she met Azmi in June 2009, “I couldn’t help but fear for his future as I heard him speak.”
Tayler’s fear about Shahid’s future was not baseless. In April earlier that year, another Muslim lawyer, Naushad Kashimji, was killed in Mangalore, coastal Karnataka. Kashimji, along with his senior Purushottam Poojary, represented several terror accused.
Around that time, several lawyers were attacked for taking up the cases of so-called anti-nationals. And bar associations had passed resolutions in at least five states that banned their members from representing people, mainly Muslim, charged with terrorism in the wake of the 2008 attack.
This made representing terror accused a task fraught with difficulties and danger, forcing those who defied the diktat to pay the price. They were labelled “terrorist lawyers” and attacked not just by members of Hindutva groups but, at several places, even by fellow lawyers.
In the eyes of such people, Shahid was particularly bad: he had been accused of terror and spent five years in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. The only evidence against him was a confession he’d never made. He’d had a momentary flirtation, and swift disillusionment, with the militancy in Kashmir following the demolition of the Babri Masjid and subsequent anti-Muslim violence in Mumbai.
However, his incarceration made him more empathetic towards those charged with terrorism, providing him rare insights into the Indian criminal justice system. This, in turn, shaped him into not just a lawyer who was courageous but one who was highly effective fighting for the underdog.
He was guided by the words of Roy Black, an American civil and criminal defence lawyer: “By showing me injustice, he taught me to love justice. By teaching me what pain and humiliation were all about, he awakened my heart to mercy. Through these hardships, I learned hard lessons. Fight against prejudice, battle the oppressors, support the underdog.”
Shahid was of the view that sending an innocent person behind bars or to the gallows only because the alleged crime was a bombing couldn’t be justified. In one of his few public interviews, he shared his feelings for the victims of blasts. “I am pained, the heart bleeds, when I hear what they have endured,” he said. “But in spite of all that, it’ll never be easy for me to see an innocent being sent behind bars or to the gallows only because the crime alleged was a bomb blast.”
Remember that the defence put up by Azmi and other lawyers is what has helped free dozens of Muslim youth accused of terrorism over the years. Had they not been represented by such lawyers, these youth might still be languishing in jail for crimes they never committed.
What is remarkable is that Shahid’s work and legacy has inspired hundreds of young people across India to take up law as a career and to fight for justice for the underdog. In my travels across the country, I’ve encountered law students and young lawyers, from across religions and genders, who want to carry forward his legacy in their own way.
Shahid’s younger brother, Khalid, is a now practicing lawyer and fighting for some of the people that his brother originally represented. This despite facing a constant threat to his life. In April 2011, there was an alleged plan by some underworld gangs to murder Khalid. In November 2011, an assistant registrar at a Mumbai sessions court, allegedly threatened him that he would meet his brother’s fate for handling such cases.
As far as Shahid’s murder case is concerned, no one has been convicted yet. In August 2017, charges of murder and criminal conspiracy were framed against four men. The charges were against five people initially, but gangster Santosh Shetty was let off in October 2014.
The trial is still going on and, according to Khalid, might take a year or two to conclude. He has high hopes as all the evidence presented thus far is against the accused men and in favour of justice. One hopes the court punishes all those culprits behind Shahid’s murder. A failure to do so would be akin to assassinating him again.