The curious case of Tahir Hussain’s recycled ‘confession’

The media is recycling what it reported on the ex-AAP councillor in early June, and without crucial legal caveats. Here’s why you need to be sceptical of it.

The curious case of Tahir Hussain’s recycled ‘confession’
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Media outlets on Monday accessed the interrogation report of ex-Aam Aadmi Party councillor Tahir Hussain, who is currently under arrest for allegedly conspiring and fomenting the communal carnage in Northeast Delhi in February this year that left 52 civilians and a police constable dead.

The Print, Zee News and Asian News International (ANI) brought this news to us. While ANI and the Print claimed to have accessed the document, Zee News clearly stated that the information came from the Delhi police.

“The Special Investigation Team (STF) team of Delhi Police said on Sunday (August 2) that Tahir Hussain has admitted to his role in the northeast Delhi riots that took place in the month of February against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA),” said the Zee News report.

ANI’s newswire on the matter was carried by NDTV and the Times of India on their websites — although TOI did not carry the report in its newspaper on either August 3 or 4. Hindustan Times also published a report based on ANI inputs on its website.

Between February 23 and 25, the Main Karawal Nagar road outside Tahir Hussain’s residence in Khajuri Khas had turned into a grotesque theatre of violence between Hindu and Muslim mobs. Rioters sacked properties, torched shops, and stone-pelted and petrol-bombed each other, leaving many injured. Twenty-six-year-old local Ankit Sharma, who was training to be a driver in the Intelligence Bureau, was murdered during the violence on the evening of February 25. His corpse was recovered from a nearby drain in Chand Bagh the following morning.

In mid-March, a Delhi court had sent Hussain to police custody for interrogation in connection with Sharma’s murder. Hussain’s interrogation report is part of a larger chargesheet that the police filed in June against the 43-year-old — which was heavily reported on in June. So, it’s not really a scoop.

News, but recycled

In terms of information, the interrogation report hardly brings anything new to the table. News of Hussain’s interrogation was in the public domain when the Delhi police filed a chargesheet into FIR 101/20 (Crime Branch) in June. The reports on August 3 — published two months after the chargesheet was accessed by most media outlets — regurgitated this.

“According to the chargesheet, Hussain in his interrogation admitted his involvement in the riot and also admitted that he was present at the terrace of his house at the time of incident,” News18 had reported on June 2.

Like the reports published on Monday, the News18 report stated that Hussain allegedly confessed to hatching a conspiracy with Khalid Saifi and Umar Khalid at the Shaheen Bagh protest to prepare for a riot during US president Donald Trump’s India visit on February 23. That he was allegedly eliciting financial help from the Popular Front of India was also mentioned in the report.

Press Trust of India, the Week and the Tribune had also reported these and other details in early June. Zee News editor-in-chief Sudhir Chaudhary had reported on Hussain’s confession on June 3. In fact, anyone who had accessed the police chargesheet into FIR 101/20 then — as many journalists did — had details about Hussain’s purported interrogation and confession, specifically mentioned in paragraph 37.

Paragraph 37 from chargesheet 101/20 that was filed in early June.

Paragraph 37 from chargesheet 101/20 that was filed in early June.

All is not stale. The new information Newslaundry scraped from the new reports of Hussain’s interrogation is that he was supposedly miffed with the government and Hindus over the suspension of Article 370 last August, and the Supreme Court’s Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid judgement in November last year.

Interestingly, the police had earlier claimed that Hussain and others had planned in a January 8 meeting to execute the riots during Trump’s visit. This claim was made in the chargesheet on Ankit Sharma’s murder (FIR 65/20, Dayalpur). The Quint had pointed out in June that “that the first intimation about US President Donald Trump’s possible visit to India in February was on 13 January”. The special cell of the Delhi police had not responded to the news website’s questions over this strange discrepancy.

In the new reports this week, however, we learn that Hussain told the police that this meeting took place on February 4, and not January 8.

Additionally, these recent news reports skipped mentioning that the legal basis of Hussain’s interrogation is untenable. Moreover, the Delhi police is also facing allegations of fabricating and distorting eyewitness accounts and confession statements in its riots probe.

Is the ‘confession’ admissible in court?

Hussain’s interrogation does not seem to be legally admissible in court. The news reports on Monday do not state that the AAP ex-councillor confessed to the litany of crimes in the presence of a magistrate. This is crucial, for confessions in police custody — usually recorded under Section 161 of the Criminal Procedure Code — cannot be accepted as valid evidence, except when it helps the police to piece together a fact relevant to the crime that it was not aware of before the statement was recorded.

This is stated in no uncertain terms in Section 26 of the Indian Evidence Act (1872): “No confession made by any person whilst he is in the custody of a police officer, unless it is made in the immediate presence of a Magistrate, shall be proved as against such person.”

Hindustan Times stated this in a front-page report on the matter on Tuesday.

Javed Ali, Tahir Hussain’s counsel, stressed upon this point and told Newslaundry that police officers might not have read the Criminal Procedure Code. “A knowledgeable person or a lawyer will laugh at the way the police and the media are reporting this case. They are ridiculing themselves,” he said.

Ali added: “The Supreme Court judgement on Kashmira Singh v. State of Madhya Pradesh has detailed pronouncements on confessions in police custody. The police wrote the accused’s statement itself, without any independent witnesses. Tahir Hussain is innocent and I’ll prove this in court.”

Concerns about misuse of power by the police is one of the reasons why confessions in police custody are not considered valid evidence. The Delhi police’s investigation into the riots is not without such concerns.

The allegations of fabrication

In July, Newslaundry reported on two murders during the Delhi riots: Maruf Ali, an electrician from Ghonda who was shot dead on February 25, and Shahid Alam, an auto driver from Mustafabad who was shot dead on February 24.

While investigating Maruf Ali’s murder, we met victims, witnesses and an accused in the case. All three had the same thing to say to us: that the Special Investigative Team probing the case made them sign on blank papers and then fabricated their statements to protect the Hindu rioters whom they said killed Ali in Subhash Mohalla during the riots.

One Shamshad, who was shot by these rioters, was perplexed that a statement under his name in the case diary said that he identified his neighbours — Muslims — as accused. “This is absolutely wrong. I did not identify anyone,” Shamshad told us. “I gave the crime branch the names of those who committed the murders. They still roam free and try to intimidate us.”

We also made Mohammad Dilshad, an accused in the case who is out on bail, read his confession statement annexed with the chargesheet. “I had no role in the riots, so why would I accept it?” he told us. “A mob entered our locality on both February 24 and 25. The police didn’t answer our calls.”

In Shahid Alam’s murder, Newslaundry had asked three eyewitnesses and two accused to read their statements in the case diary. All of them said that the claims under their names were false.

“Everything written under my name is a lie,” said Mukesh, a migrant worker whom the police claims identified all six accused in the case in his statements. “I was once called to the Daryaganj office [where the crime branch office is located] and had a conversation with a police officer. He asked me if I identified any rioter. I told them if I did not see them and so I could not identify anyone.”

Newslaundry had sent questionnaires to the Delhi police crime branch for comments on these reports. We did not receive a response.

From ‘rescued’ to ‘mastermind’

Months before calling him the “mastermind” behind the February violence, the Delhi police had claimed to have “rescued” Hussain from his home on February 24. This is because, as Additional Commissioner of Police Ajit Kumar Singla put it on March 3, “some people told us that a councillor is stuck and feeling insecure”. This corroborated Hussain’s plea from his terrace recorded on February 24.

In an odd twist, hours after Singla’s comment, ANI put out a clarification that Hussain “did not require rescuing”. Its source? “Delhi Police Sources”.

Last week, the Delhi police received bad press after the Delhi High Court slammed its July 8 order as “mischievous”. In the order, special commissioner of police (crime) Praveer Ranjan had alerted probe teams investigating the Delhi riots to “a degree of resentment among the Hindu community” in parts of Northeast Delhi over “the arrests of some Hindu youth”, asking supervisory officers to practice “due care and precaution” while “arresting any person”.

Days after this judicial slap on the wrist, we now have Tahir Hussain’s recycled confession in the media masquerading as breaking news, and without the crucial legal caveats.

The Delhi police’s handling of the riots investigation might not be robust, but its foray into media management seems adroit. However, while this may influence public opinion on the riots, the police’s case in the court of law is what matters and, at the current juncture, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Newslaundry sent a questionnaire to elicit the Delhi police’s comments on this story. We’ll update the piece if and when we receive a response.

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Also Read : Who killed Maruf Ali in Delhi's communal carnage? Fellow Muslims, police say
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