THE arrest of Abu Salem Ansari last fortnight had all the formula elements of the Mumbai pop-film industry that he had for long preyed on. Had Ansari had a free run, the wealth he had accumulated in the course of a three-decade career in extortion, murder and terrorism would have been safely laundered and funnelled into a fake identity and the assets strung along the east coast of the United States.
In late August, Indian intelligence officials spotted Abu Salem in Abu Dhabi, one of his long-standing haunts, after he had disappeared from their radar screen for the best part of a year. Officials in New Delhi moved cautiously, since the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had refused to secure his arrest in November 2001. The assistance of the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) office in New Delhi helped build pressure on the UAE. It is possible that Abu Salem's contacts in the UAE warned him that action was imminent, for he soon flew to Atlanta, U.S., along with his partner, the Mumbai starlet Monica Bedi, and his aide Syed Haider. All three flew on separate flights, and Salem is believed to have carried several hundred thousand dollars in cash.
FBI officials soon located Abu Salem, began to monitor calls he was making using a satellite phone, and were able to establish his whereabouts. Most of his conversations, informed sources told Frontline, centred on the sale of properties in the U.S. purchased in Bedi's name. Abu Salem made sure that he moved his locations regularly in order to evade arrest. Those he spoke to were, however, interrogated. Before he could be arrested, Abu Salem flew to Lisbon through Pakistan, taking Bedi and Haider with him.
But the trap had closed, and the Interpol soon caught up with them in Lisbon. It is not quite clear just who Abu Salem had hoped to liaise with there. Portugal has, however, figured in past investigations of terrorist groups active in India: top Harkat-ul-Ansar leader Masood Azhar arrived in India on illegally obtained Portuguese travel documents. Abu Salem's fingerprints, obtained from two legitimate passports he had applied for from the Mumbai Regional Passport Office, were made over to that country's authorities. The External Affairs Ministry moved rapidly to secure his extradition, promising Portugal that prosecutors would not seek the death penalty. European Union member-countries have abolished the death penalty and do not extradite criminals to countries where they would face such punishment.
Born in 1968 at Sarai Mir village in Uttar Pradesh's Azamgarh district, Abu Salem grew up in Mumbai where his parents moved while he was a child. In his teens, Abu Salem started off as an apprentice for Dawood Ibrahim's brother Anees Ibrahim, running guns to hit-men in various parts of Mumbai. He soon acquired a reputation for efficiency and brutality. In 1993, Abu Salem was given charge of transporting explosives shipped in by Karachi-based smugglers Majnu Mustafa and Mohammad Dosa for use in the Mumbai serial bombings. Like all members of the Dawood mafia, he fled Mumbai after the bombings, and set up base in Karachi.
Unlike some other members of the Dawood cartel, however, Abu Salem continued to play an active role in political terrorism. He is believed, for example, to have supervised the assassinations of Maharashtra Bharatiya Janata Party leaders Ramdas Naik and Prem Singh. Working out of Nairobi, Lagos, Bahrain and Dubai, Salem also played a central role in rebuilding the Dawood cartel's business operations. In December 1997, he had his first brush with the UAE authorities, when he was picked up by the Dubai Police in connection with fraud charges against a car import firm run on his behalf by his brothers Salim and Nayeem. He was released on bail guaranteed by a UAE resident, and escaped the country using a Pakistani passport. The Central Bureau of Investigation had, in the meantime, moved its first extradition request against him, which the UAE chose to ignore.
Sometime in 1998, furious over being denied what he felt was a fare share of the mafia's earnings, Abu Salem broke with Dawood and Anees Ibrahim. He got to work setting up his own organisation. In 1998, a Punjab Police electronic intelligence sweep directed at the Khalistan Liberation Force led accidentally to the interception of extortion calls targeting prominent north Indian businessmen. Subsequent investigations led, famously, to the arrest of Abu Salem's principal conduit in New Delhi, the politician-turned-mafioso Romesh Sharma.
Sharma's arrest put an end to Abu Salem's efforts to set up a North India-based operation, but his parallel enterprise in Mumbai was more successful. On August 12, 1998, the group organised the execution of pop music magnate Gulshan Kumar, sending out a clear signal to those who sought to resist his demands. In essence, the Abu Salem group sought to acquire, at discounted prices, the rights to market films in markets in the U.K. and the U.S.
In the winter of 2001, Abu Salem was arrested in Sharjah on the basis of an Interpol red-corner alert which makes it mandatory for member-countries of the international police organisation to arrest a suspect upon sight. However, Indian Ambassador K.C. Singh's first requests for information from UAE officials were met with the response that nothing had in fact happened. It was only after 48 hours that the Ambassador was told that a Mohammad Ali had indeed been picked up but that he had been allowed to leave for Lagos, travelling through Muscat.
Just how Abu Salem's extradition process now proceeds remains to be seen. Home Minister L.K. Advani, speaking to journalists on September 21, exuded confidence that the government would be able to persuade Portugal to deport him. Other suspects wanted by India, notably Nadeem Akhtar Saifi, wanted for the killing of Gulshan Kumar, have had considerable success in persuading Western judicial authorities that they will not receive a fair trial in India. The mafia baron's long criminal record makes it unlikely that any sensible court will allow him to stay on in Portugal on the basis of such claims, but the legal proceedings to come could just be long and messy.
JANATA Party president Subramanian Swamy has joined hands with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in raising the issue of the "foreign origin" of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. If Jayalalithaa had charged on September 2 that Sonia Gandhi had "no qualification but a marriage certificate" to become the Prime Minister, Swamy alleged on September 19 that the Congress president had made a false claim that had appeared in the "Who's Who" of the Lok Sabha, about her educational qualification (Sonia Gandhi, of Italian origin, was married to Rajiv Gandhi, former Prime Minister and Congress president. Her maiden name was Sonia Maino.)
Sonia Gandhi was elected to the Lok Sabha in the 1999 elections from the Amethi constituency. In the "Who's Who", which is published by the Lok Sabha Secretariat, each member is asked to provide his or her curriculum vitae. The biographical sketch of Sonia Gandhi states this about her educational qualifications: "Diploma in English Language, Educated at Cambridge University, Cambridge (U.K.)."
Swamy said he had sent a complaint to then Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi after the University had written that Sonia Gandhi was never a student in the University. Swamy circulated to presspersons in Chennai on September 19 a letter written on November 28, 2001 by David McCarthy of the University of Cambridge, Student Records and Statistics, to a Jay Kumar that "we have no record" of Sonia Maino "as having registered as a student at this University under the spelling of the names you have given." The letter from the University added, "If you have any further information, such as, additional/alternative names, degree awarded, subject studied or the name of the college attended whilst at Cambridge University, we would be happy to re-check our records."
When the Speaker forwarded his complaint to Sonia Gandhi for her comments, she replied stating that she was never enrolled as a student in the University of Cambridge, Swamy said. So he has now requested the Speaker to forward his complaint and Sonia Gandhi's "admission" to the Ethics Committee for deciding on the punishment for this "misconduct", he said. He demanded that she be asked, at the minimum, to apologise to Parliament and, "at the maximum", to resign her Lok Sabha seat. According to the Janata Party president, accurately stating educational qualifications was now a new requirement for candidates contesting elections which, the Election Commission of India, implementing a Supreme Court order, has notified.
Swamy said he had filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court alleging that Sonia Gandhi had given "false" information when she applied for Indian citizenship. According to him, when she applied for the Indian citizenship, the Italian government did not give a letter to the Government of India to the effect that Sonia had renounced her Italian citizenship. Swamy wanted Sonia Gandhi to explain why this had not been done. Under the Citizenship Act, 1955, a letter from the Italian Government confirming renunciation of citizenship was mandatory, he said. Therefore he demanded the termination of Sonia Gandhi's citizenship of India.
Mayawati's gesture to BJP
BHARATIYA Janata Party leaders often talk about "coalition dharma", but now it is the turn of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati to give them a lesson or two in coalition politics. She is indebted to the BJP for making her Chief Minister for a third time though she does not have a majority of her own. Now, she has reciprocated the gesture by letting Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, Union Human Resource Development Minister M.M. Joshi and Union Coal and Mines Minister Uma Bharati off the hook in the Ayodhya case, at least for the time being, by refusing to issue a fresh notification for their prosecution. This she did at the risk of antagonising her Muslim vote bank, which was instrumental in taking her party to the number two position in the State Assembly. Even otherwise, given Mayawati's unscrupulous pursuit of power, it was unrealistic to expect her to do anything else.
Even before formally announcing the decision not to issue a fresh notification, Mayawati had declared that the Deputy Prime Minister would attend her "dhikkar rally" (condemnation rally against the Samajwadi Party) in Lucknow on September 28. This was ample evidence that she did not want to sacrifice her government yet.
However, aware that her decision was fraught with political dangers, Mayawati has put the onus on the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), saying that if it wanted to prosecute the guilty, it could still do so in a court in Faizabad. While announcing her decision in Lucknow on September 17, Mayawati took pains to explain that non-issuance of a fresh notification would only mean that there would be no special court to try the accused, but that did not mean that the case itself had become invalid and the CBI, which was the investigating and the prosecuting agency, could go ahead with the prosecution in the "ordinary court" of Faizabad, under whose jurisdiction the crime was committed.
Mayawati was forced to make her government's stand on the issue clear following the Supreme Court's directive to her in this connection on July 29.
The Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad high court had on February 12, 2001, declared invalid the notification for the prosecution of Advani, Joshi, Uma Bharati and several senior Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Shiv Sena leaders in the case relating to the December 6, 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid. The High Court had taken this decision because the notification to constitute a special court for their prosecution had been issued without its mandatory permission. The court, however, ruled that it was a "rectifiable" technical error and the U.P. government could issue a fresh notification paving the way for their prosecution. The then Rajnath Singh-led BJP government, however, refused to issue a fresh notification, saying that it was for the CBI to decide. The CBI, on its part, has remained content with merely filing a revision petition in the High Court and writing a letter to the U.P. government to issue a fresh notification. In the present context too it seems improbable that the premier investigating agency will initiate steps for the prosecution, among others, of the Deputy Prime Minister.
For the moment, the BJP leaders can heave a sigh of relief, until of course, the Supreme Court considers the U.P. government's reply and takes a decision.
Purnima S. Tripathi