Dreaded terrorist and founder of Indian Mujahideen (IM), Mohammed Riyaz Bhatkal, 42, who masterminded Hyderabad’s Dilsukhnagar bomb blasts that claimed 18 lives and injured 132 on 21 February 2013, will be India’s latest most wanted criminal operating out of Pakistan. Riyaz is believed to have taken shelter in Karachi since 2007. Thus, for Indian agencies, Riyaz Bhatkal, who belongs to the coastal Bhatkal town in Karnataka, will join other criminal masterminds such as Dawood Ibrahim on the list of “most wanted” terrorists who have found sanctuary in Pakistan, and who Pakistan must hand over to India.
Five other IM operatives directed and tutored by Riyaz in executing the bomb blasts in Dilsukhnagar, a busy marketplace, were tried and convicted by a special court of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on Tuesday, that is 13 December. The court will pronounce the quantum of punishment on Monday. The sentence may range from death penalty to life imprisonment, as per NIA sources. The five convicted IM terrorists are: Yasin Bhatkal, 34, Asadullah Akhtar, 32, Aijaz Sheikh 29, Zia-Ur-Rahman, 29 and Mohammad Tahseen Akhtar, 28. They were all arrested by the NIA from different places, including neighbouring Nepal in the past three years, and have confessed to how they were instructed and commandeered by Riyaz who is hiding in Pakistan.
The NIA, which was formed specifically to probe terrorist cases meticulously planned from across the border, has won its first court battle as the special court set up to try the case, convicted all the five IM operatives arrested by the NIA. Though Riyaz is the brain behind the blasts, the NIA couldn’t get him convicted as he is hiding in Pakistan.
NIA director Sharad Kumar who flew to Hyderabad to witness the court verdict delivered in the high security Charlapalli Central Prison on the city outskirts on Tuesday held a meeting with his officials on the next steps to bring Riyaz to justice in the case. If all the convicts are to hang for their crime, so is the case with Riyaz, said NIA sources.
NIA’s special public prosecutor V. Surender Rao told The Sunday Guardian that he would be seeking death penalty for all of them as “the bomb blasts had wiped out many innocent lives belonging to all religions and had destroyed the lives of over 130 innocent people for no fault of theirs”. “They (IM terrorists) deserve the maximum punishment,” he said.
Riyaz Bhatkal, alias Ismail Shabandari, is among the top Indian radical Muslim operatives who take directions from Pakistan’s ISI in planning violent attacks against their homeland. NIA sources told this newspaper that Riyaz had differed with the other founder members of the IM who believed that fighting for an Islamic state was their primary concern since the early 2000s.
That was the reason why Riyaz split with the other chief architect of IM, Shafi Armar, who fled to Syria in 2008 to fight for an Islamic state and has been luring Indian Muslims since then. Pakistan’s ISI had weaned away a section of the IM from their parent outfit, SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India) and other splinter groups, to spread terror in India.
During the course of prolonged interrogation of Yasin Bhatkal, who is the younger brother of Riyaz, and other IM operatives in the past three years, the NIA found that the ISI was brainwashing IM men that the purpose of the “holy war” of jihad had more to do with damaging India than spreading the cause of an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq.
According to the arrested IM operatives who were in touch with Riyaz all through the years till they were caught after the blasts in 2013, Pakistan’s ISI was telling them that India was the biggest obstacle to establishing an Islamic state in South Asia, unlike Shafi Armar and others who felt that India was not on their radar.
Riyaz’s presence in India is also crucial for NIA, which is now probing close to 12 blasts triggered by the IM that killed 50 people and injured another 200 in the country in the past nine years. The blasts took place in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, West Bengal and Karnataka. If Riyaz is brought to India, the mystery behind these blasts as well as the role of the ISI would be unravelled.
The NIA special court had established that the IM operatives were provided with all planning, direction, funds and arms and ammunition by Riyaz in executing the blasts in Hyderabad.
NIA had also gathered information that Riyaz had been directly controlled and operated by Pakistan’s ISI and had been provided with the wherewithal for the blasts. Riyaz had personally supplied to Yasin and Asadullah, Rs 1.25 lakh in cash from local sources, besides another Rs 1 lakh through hawala channels from the Gulf countries, before the blasts.
The blasts case was initially probed by the then Andhra Pradesh police, but as its reach proved to be inadequate to catch the accused from across the country and Nepal, the Centre transferred the case to the NIA in March 2013. Yasin Bhatkal and Asadullah Akhtar were arrested from a Nepal hideout in August 2013, Tahseen and Zia-ur-Ramhan in March 2014 and Aijaz Sheikh in April 2014.
The arrested IM terrorists had confessed that they had conducted several reconnaissance operations in Hyderabad and finally selected the Dilsukhnagar area so that they could wreak the maxim havoc and loss of human life, on the orders of Riyaz who spoke to them on Internet phone and Skype. The location and the timing of the blasts were approved by Riyaz.
Contrary to the estimates by Riyaz that the Dilsukhnagar blasts would inflict injuries on Hindus, some Muslims, too, lost their lives, while others received grievous injuries on 21 February 2013. Mohammad Shamsuddin, 36, elder brother of Rafiuddin, 22, who was killed in the blasts, told the media that “all the terrorists who are behind the blasts should be hanged as soon as possible”.