‘Miskeen Bagh custodial killing’: After 25-yrs, court directs police to probe investigating officers

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After an elapse of twenty-five years, the district court Srinagar has ordered the disposal of the closure report into the killing of a shopkeeper Mohammad Ramzan Bhat in Miskeen Bagh area of Srinagar in 1996 and has directed the police to constitute Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the role of investigating officers after finding loopholes in the case.

The court in its order mentions that on 1 June 1996 Station House Officer (SHO)  of Khanyar police station received a docket that at 11 pm on 31 May 1996 at Miskeen Bagh unknown militants who were hiding at hideout fired upon the police and government forces searching in the area.

As per the docket, a copy of which is with The Kashmir Walla, in the firing “the militant Mohammad Ramzan Bhat who was part of Zarb-ul-Mujahideen group got injured and killed, while rest of the militants successfully fled away from the place of occurrence due to darkness”.

Upon receipt of the docket the then SHO Khanyar lodged an FIR (no. 88/1996) and the initial investigation in the case was carried out by Sub-Inspector Mohammad Sabir.

During the investigation, Bhat’s body was taken for the postmortem and handed over to the family for last rites. And the case was closed as “untraced”.

However, in 2006, Bhat’s wife Jamela Banoo filed a complaint and following which the case was reopened by the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Srinagar and entrusted the matter to SIT. He directed them to complete the investigation on priority and furnish the detailed report in its office. 

However, as per the court order, no progress was made into the case post 2006.

On 5 March 2021, the slain’s lawyer asked for a status report from the district magistrate Srinagar. On 15 March 2021, the police submitted a closure report before the court.  However, on 1 April 2021, the family filed a protest petition against the closure of the case.

In the protest petition, filed by Banoo, it has been stated that the two armed guard personnel then posted at Social Welfare Department Miskeen Bagh namely Majeed and Azam Gujjar had borrowed essential commodities worth Rs. 7,500 from Bhat’s shop on credit.

The petition said that when Bhat demanded money both the guard personnel got annoyed and with the help of SOG [Special Operations Group] Rainawari they arrested Bhat.

“The guard along with several others took Bhat from his shop at around 5:30 pm on 31 May 1996 to Rainawari Police Station where he was tortured which resulted in his death,” the petition said. “The guards and SHO Rainawari Mir Hussein then threw the body of Bhat in nallah [stream].”

The petition said that thereafter, the guards and SOG Rainawari after killing Bhat conspired and involved him in a fake gunfight.

Desperate family

In the 1990s custodial killings in the hands of police and armed forces were a common norm in the valley. With widespread impunity under the garb of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), thousands of people perished in the interrogation centres without any accountability.

Talking with The Kashmir Walla, Bhat’s wife Banoo said that her husband (a daily wager in the state power department) was on election duty for parliamentarian polls and returned home after three days, on 31 May 1996, when he was picked up from his shop outside his house.

“It was late afternoon when he [Bhat] came home from election duty. He had tea and left for his shop. All of a sudden we heard an outcry and we rushed outside. There was a huge military presence and they were beating my husband ruthlessly. He felt unconscious and was bundled in a gypsy and whisked away,” said Banoo.

Banoo said that they followed the gypsy in an auto-rickshaw and reached Vishwa Bharati College in the Rainawari area of Srinagar.

“The moment we reached the college, the troops were carrying him inside on their shoulders. We approached the main gate of the college to find out the reason for his arrest. However, after a few minutes he was again boarded in the same gypsy and the moment we  tried to approach him, the military resorted to aerial firing and lathicharged us,” she said.

“Meanwhile,” she added, “some of the family members visited the Khanyar police station and filed an FIR about his arrest.”

Banoo said that after taking cover behind the vehicles during the aerial firing, they again followed the gypsy before it reached the Miskeen Bagh (camp).

“Till 10:30 pm we were waiting outside the camp but nobody answered our queries. Then, after we went to a neighbours house for a night stay,” she said. “At 11:30 pm a heavy firing started till 11:45 pm, I was praying for the safety of all including my husband.”

Banoo said the next day early morning they again visited the Vishwa Bharati College.

“As we were trying to find the whereabouts of my husband, two children approached an elderly person who was also standing beside and said that two bodies have been found in the Miskeen Bagh,” she said.

“I immediately asked my sister-in-laws to visit Miskeen Bagh and find out if the body was of my husband. As soon as they left, I saw my neighbor Mohammad Maqbool coming towards me, asking me to come with them. I sensed something was wrong and asked him if it was my husband, he replied ‘Yes’,” she said.

Banoo said when she reached the spot, she saw her husband’s body in a nallah [stream].

“There was no bullet wound on his body. He had tortured marks on his body. Then he was taken to Khanyar police station after that for the postmortem,” she said.  “It was no less than a doomsday for us. But, I am determined to fight for justice and won’t give up till the killers of my husband will be booked for their crime. I have promised Allah that I will fight this case till the end and Allah is with us.”

At a time when Bhat was killed, he had left a 32-year-old wife and three children aged 11, 6 and 4-year-old behind.

Bhat’s son Bilal Ahmad said that even the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) in their report has clearly mentioned that his father was killed in a fake gunfight.

“In 2003, we narrated all the evidence before the SHRC , and in 2007 the SHRC in its report said that my father was innocent and was killed in a fake encounter and the people involved in the case should be booked, but no action was taken against the culprits,” said Bilal. “In 2008 they again approached the SHRC but still no cognizance has been taken of that report.”

The SHRC report, a copy of which is in possession of The Kashmir Walla, after going through the submission of the family, has said that the police in the report have not justified as to how the label of terrorist could be placed upon the person of the deceased.

“The report of the police doesn’t inspire credibility because had there been any firing from the alleged hideout, some persons of the raiding party would have been injured. There is no such injury caused to the raiding party,” the SHRC said.

“The petitioner [Jameela Bano0] has also produced witnesses from the locality Abdul Rehman Kotu, Mohammad Sadiq Sheikh and Ghulam Mohammad Shah.  The witnesses have stated that they were in the shop in the same locality when a white Gypsy came and lifted him [Mohammad Ramzab Bhat],” the SHRC has said in its report.

“The evidence of the petitioner is therefore admitted and application as such is accepted and it is recommended that Rs. 1 lakh should be paid to her [Jameela Bano] as ex-gratia and benefit of SRO-43 be given to her for the death of a citizen,” the SHRC said.

Postmortem

The postmortem report of Bhat, a copy which is with The Kashmir Walla, also reflects the his death was caused due to the torture. According to the postmortem “the deceased under autopsy has sustained sharp penetrating injury to right paraspinal region to liver laceration profuse hemorrhage shock cardio respiratory arrest and death”.

The report adds that there were strangulation marks on both wrists of Bhat and suffered multiple injuries, fractured upon 8th, 9th, and 10th ribs.         

“Fracture dislocation and injuries on body ecchymosis around the right eye. Bruise right pinna,” the postmortem reads.

Court observation

The latest court order, issued on 28 October 2021, reads that the deceased was also shown involved in kidnapping, attacks of troops and killing of three civilians. However, the outcome of the cases registered in pursuance of those acts has not been placed on record.

“There is no substantial evidence on record to substantiate the said fact,” the order reads.

The perusal of the record also reveals that in 2005, then additional Director General of Police (DGP) CID in a communication to DIG Srinagar also stated that as per the field verification report, Bhat was tortured which resulted in his death.

“It is very unfortunate that the investigative agency has not viewed the matter with a serious sense of responsibility expected to them that too when their attention was drawn to the serious situation by the report of the Addl. DGP CID, Srinagar and the postmortem report,” the court said.

“Therefore, from the perusal of the record and keeping in view what has been discussed it appears that the investigation of the instant case has not been conducted properly from the beginning,” the court said.

The court added that according to the report dated 11 February 2017 the main points reflect that SHO Rainawari Mir Hussein, Constable Noorudin 427 9th BTN, constable Ali Mohammad 2066 have misled the investigation agency and provided false details of the incident.

“The said public servants are liable to be prosecuted for commission of offences of abduction and murder,” the court said.

“It is very unfortunate that 25 years have elapsed since the case was registered in the year 1996 and till date the case has not been taken to its logical conclusion,” the court said.

The court said that the instant closure report appears to be an outcome of a botched up investigation without having due regard to the facts and evidence as such, “the closure report cannot be accepted”.

The court while observing the grave loopholes in the investigation has directed the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Srinagar to constitute a special investigation team headed by the officer not below the rank of DYSP to investigate the instant case.

As per the court orders, the SSP is further directed to investigate into the role of the investigative officer SHO Rainawari and other officials who played a key role in the investigation of the case, before the case was opened in the year 2006.

“The SSP Srinagar is also directed to investigate into the role of SIT for sitting over the investigation for almost three years and not investigating the case.

The court has ordered the SSP to conclude the investigation in a time bound manner preferably within a period of six months.

Talking with The Kashmir Walla, Advocate Tabassum Rasool said that she has complete faith in the judiciary to take the case to its logical conclusion.

 “It has been 25 years, and the victim’s family is still awaiting justice. I am optimistic that after the Court’s direction, the real culprits of Bhat’s killing will be booked and jailed soon,” Tabassum said. 

“It is the first time that an investigative team will be investigated by another special investigative team,” she said.

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