In October 2001, police in Bombay, India's financial capital, charged 26-year-old Afroz with being part of Osama bin Laden's al Qaida network and said he was learning to fly so he could smash a plane into the House of Commons in London. A month earlier, on Sept. 11, terrorists linked to al Qaida flew airliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington, more than 2800 people were killed.
When Afroz was arrested police painted him as India's own Mohammad Atta--the Egyptian believed to be the head of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers. They said Afroz and his al Qaida associates were in Britain on Sept. 11 and had plans to hijack a plane from London's Heathrow airport and use it to destroy the Parliament building.
Six months after he was arrested, the police could not substantiate the charges despite a confession from Afroz that he later said was made under duress, and the court released him on bail in April. He still faces charges, but of sedition, not terrorism.
Afroz says his only fault was that he was a Muslim in a predominantly Hindu country. "I have been charged just because I am Muslim," he told United Press International in an interview.
Afroz's case is not isolated and observers say it follows an increased scrutiny of Muslims in India following the U.S.-declared war on terrorism. The country's minority community constitutes the world's second-largest Muslim population and though India recently chose a Muslim for president, charges of discrimination remain.
As evidence, Muslims point to the Afroz case and the anti-Muslim riots in western Gujarat, which have killed over a thousand people. But they also charge that Muslims from the country are being discriminated against while traveling abroad. "Every Muslim's visa application to the U.S. and Western countries goes through a lot of scrutiny to be invariably rejected," says travel agent Arshad Siddiqui, who is also chairman of the Bombay-based Federation of Islamic Organizations. He said Muslim tourist traffic to the United States and Europe had fallen by more than 70 percent after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Police sources said Muslim air travelers on domestic and international flights were being watched closely and their immigration papers, visa and luggage was almost always double-checked. "We don't want to take any chances," a police officer at New Delhi airport said. "Most of the young (Muslim) travelers are marked."
As part of its post-Sept. 11 strategy to combat terrorism, India passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which prescribed the death penalty for terrorist killings, 90 days of detention without trial for suspected terrorists, and special courts to deal with terrorist cases.
Opposition parties and human rights groups criticized the law--under which Afroz was charged retroactively though the act did not allow this--saying it was too open to abuse. "The proposed bill ... would have the ill-effect of providing unintentionally a strong weapon capable of gross misuse and violation of human rights which must be avoided," the autonomous National Human Rights Commission said of the law.
The use of POTA against Afroz was one the factors that weakened the case against him. And though he was freed, the court asked Afroz not to leave Bombay and to cooperate with investigators.
Afroz has alleged that during his period of detention, police tortured him and left permanent scars on his body. "I was stripped naked and put into a chilled room in winters for four days," he said. "The torture was unbearable, and I begged my tormentors to kill me."
Human-rights groups, including the NHRC, have criticized Indian police in the past for the use of torture against suspects to gain confessions. "The investigators would often abuse Islam and our prophet and would threaten to eliminate me in a fake encounter," he said, using the Indian expression for a gun battle between police and militants. "They (police) took me out of jail in the middle of night on three occasions to kill me in a stage-managed shoot-out but they changed their mind at the last moment."
He also alleged he signed a confession under duress and following police threats they would kill his brother (also held on terror-related charges) in a shootout. Afroz retracted the confession in court, however.
The case against Afroz centered on his flying lessons in Australia, England and the United States. Police said his family was too poor to pay for the more than $100,000 in fees needed for the classes.
Afroz clocked 100 hours of flying in Australia on a single engine twin-seat Cessna 152 and Piped Warrior 28 planes in 1997. He returned to Bombay in 1998 to later go to a flying school in Tyler, Texas, where he clocked 10 hours of flying on small planes. The U.S. Consulate in Bombay rejected Afroz's visa application three times, but he was lucky a fourth time. Afroz was in a flying school class in Britain on Sept. 11, 2001. He told UPI he did not have the training to fly a Boeing. "How can a single engine pilot fly a Boeing?" he asked.
But the Bombay police still say Afroz is their man. "We are convinced that basic pilot training on any aircraft is enough to take control of a bigger plane and the purpose is not to land it safely anyway," Pradip Sawant, the city's deputy police commissioner, told UPI. "The aim is not to land ... but just bang."
As part of its investigation in the Afroz case, the Bombay police sent a team of sleuths to Britain and the United States to track his movements in those countries. In Tyler, they said, Afroz was seen in the company of at least two of the men who crashed the planes into the World Trade Center. "He (Afroz) is a part of a larger conspiracy of al Qaida," Sawant said. "We have got him to reach to the root cause of terrorism."
But Afroz maintains he has been implicated because he is a Muslim. He has filed a case against the government claiming nearly $500,000 for wrongful detention. "Do you think they would have arrested a Hindu pilot trainee in this country?" he asked.