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Encounter killings in States

Posted by Admin on September 22, 2009

COVER STORY

Fake justice

“Encounter killing” is a pan-Indian phenomenon and an easy way out for men in uniform.

NISSAR AHMAD
20091009262002001.jpg
The body of Abdur Rehman Padder, killed in a fake encounter, being exhumed from the grave at Batmohalla Sumbal near Srinagar on February 1, 2007.

MAHARASHTRA
by Anupama Katakam

MAHARASHTRA was among the first States to introduce “encounter killings” as a method of policing and has perfected it over time.

Encounters fall into two categories in the State – shootouts that take place in Mumbai, which are largely underworld-related, and those that take place in the districts, particularly in the naxalite belt that borders Andhra Pradesh.

To understand the origin of encounters in Mumbai, one has to understand the history of crime in the metropolis. Police documents say that encounters began in the early 1980s, when the underworld started exercising control over the metropolis in a big way. At that time, it operated mainly in the area of hafta (protection money). Drugs, commercial sex, and trade in illegal weapons became major sources of income for the underworld, when Dawood Ibrahim took over from the don Karim Lala.

Arun Gawli’s gang was also gaining strength during that time. Gang rivalries were at their peak. The police began to eliminate key gangsters in order to curb crime or even to settle scores. Such encounters eventually became a means to break the underworld in the city.

But by the early 1990s the Mumbai Police were in a shambles. They were unable to control the communal riots of 1992-93 and their intelligence machinery completely failed to get wind of the preparations for the serial bomb blasts of 1993, which killed 257 people. Investigations revealed that Dawood Ibrahim’s gang, which was reigning supreme at the time, was responsible for the terror attack.

Extortion killings were also increasing. Builders, film producers and businessmen were shot in broad daylight. The city was clearly being run by the underworld, and something had to be done.

A special squad was created in the police, under orders from the Home Minister, to combat the underworld terror and finish off gangsters if necessary. The squad was trained in automatic weaponry and virtually given the licence to kill.

“An extreme situation called for extreme measures,” said a police officer who was formerly Joint Commissioner (Crime) and was credited with destroying the two major underworld gangs in the city. According to an informed source, there were upwards of 200 encounter deaths during his tenure.

The special force put together a network of informers and systematically did away with gangsters. All the gang syndicates were severely crippled. And with dons Dawood and Chota Rajan on the run, it became increasingly difficult for the underworld to continue its business in the city. Mumbai was finally becoming a safe place.

Meanwhile, the squad came to be known as the Encounter Specialists. Its members were feared and, in a perverse way, society began lionising them. Films were made and books written based on their heroics. But some of them fell out of grace at some point in their careers.

“They act on commands from the top. So they probably believe no one can touch them. They are highly trained in combating crime and the underworld. But all the recognition and glory make them a little heady with power,” said a human rights lawyer.

The highest number of gangsters killed by the police was 94, in 2001, according to State government records. The number fell to 47 in 2002, and eight in 2006. Police sources say there were approximately 600 “encounter deaths” in the last six years.

In the 2000s too, Mumbai witnessed several bomb blasts though not as severe as the 1993 series. Acting on Intelligence Bureau reports, the police busted several militant cells. Here again, the encounter method played a crucial role. In March 2003, three men were gunned down on the grounds that they were Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives linked to the 2002-03 blasts in Mumbai. In August 2006, another LeT operative was gunned down, because he was in possession of unlicensed arms and ammunition.

“Yes, there are human rights issues here. But encounters have been largely responsible for reducing the high crime levels in this city. It has worked as a deterrent and we have definitely got rid of some nasty elements. We don’t just pick on anyone. There is substantial intelligence information before a person is picked up,” says a high-ranking police official.

Clearly, encounters with militants have not been as successful as those with the underworld. Mumbai continues to be a terror target.

Human rights groups have been decrying these extrajudicial killings. P.A. Sebastian, a member of the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, says encounters are staged to salvage the government’s image and counter the impression that law and order is out of control. “The police say they have acted in self-defence. The state accepts that. No cases are registered, there is no trial,” he points out. The victims are most often poor and have no self-defence.

According to the police officer, encounters are not easily achieved. There are certain rules. For instance, if an encounter does take place, the involved policemen have to depose before a magistrate in an inquiry. Every trap laid for a criminal, which may possibly turn into an encounter, requires the permission of a District Magistrate. Most importantly, a policeman will not fire unless fired upon, he says. However, activists argue that this rule is not always followed.

JAMMU & KASHMIR
By Shujaat Bukhari in Srinagar

FAKE encounters have been a regular feature of the past 20 years of militancy-related counter violence in Jammu and Kashmir. The general perception is that most killings in the State are stage-managed, even those of armed militants.

The first encounter that attracted attention was the killing of five people by the police and 7 Rashtriya Rifles in the Pathribal area of south Kashmir on March 25, 2000. This came five days after the massacre of 35 Sikhs by unidentified gunmen in Chhatisinghpora in the valley obviously to invite the attention of visiting United States President Bill Clinton towards Kashmir. The Senior Superintendent of Police, Anantnag, Farooq Khan, claimed that the security forces had killed five militants responsible for the killing of the Sikhs.

Farooq Khan was suspended but reinstated later. He made the plea that the “operation” in question was actually carried out by the Army and the State Police had only assisted it.

But the local people alleged that the five were civilians picked up by the security forces during a night-long operation on March 24. They said the charred bodies of the militants displayed in Chhatisinghpora were actually those of these five civilians who had gone missing. The public outcry led to the opening of the graves, and relatives of the missing people identified the victims. DNA test results were fudged, giving more credence to allegations that the security forces were trying to cover up the case.

A Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the case led to the indictment of five Army officers. The Army, however, contested the basis of the jurisdiction and approached the High Court, which dismissed the case. This order was later stayed by the Supreme Court. But justice remains elusive in the case.

Later, the death of a carpenter in Kokernag in a fake encounter uncovered the killing of four more civilians in the same fashion. Eleven policemen, found guilty of hatching the conspiracy to kill five innocent civilians, calling them “militants”, were arrested. The Rashtriya Rifles battalion was also involved in this “joint operation” but did not cooperate with the investigations.

In February 2006, about 20 boys playing cricket in a playground in Doodhipora in Kupwara district were fired upon by Army personnel. Four boys were killed.

Many such encounters have taken place in the State, but investigation proceedings are yet to be completed as the Army is involved in most of them.

Kashmir Bar Association president Mian Abdul Qayoom, who fought many of these cases, says that most fake encounters do not get highlighted. “Only a few have been publicised and punishment has been given only in the Ganderbal encounter,” he told Frontline. Qayoom claimed that of the 10,000 people who went missing in the past 20 years, most were killed in fake encounters.

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) and the Disturbed Areas Act, which give immunity to the security forces, “are the biggest impediments in delivering justice in such cases”, Qayoom says.

However, the police do not agree. Director-General of Police Kuldip Khoda said the State government was committed to zero tolerance on human rights abuses. “All the operations are conducted jointly and there is hardly any collateral damage,” he added.

MANIPUR
By Sushanta Talukdar in Guwahati

PTI
20091009262002002.jpg
National United Women’s Front president Shanti Das (left) consoles the mother of Chungkham Sanjit, who was killed in a fake encounter in Imphal.

YET another “fake encounter” has sparked protests across Manipur. It involved the killing of a 23-year-old pregnant woman, Thockchom Rebina, and a 27-year-old former militant, Chungkham Sanjit, on July 23, at Khwairamband Bazaar in Imphal.

Manipur erupted in protest after the New Delhi-based Tehelka magazine published 12 pictures that punctured holes in the official version that Sanjit had died in an encounter. According to a statement read out by Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh on the floor of the Assembly, Sanjit died in an encounter which ensued after he fired at a group of policemen. The Chief Minister attributed the death of the pregnant woman and the injuries of five others to indiscriminate firing by the youth.

However, the magazine pictures, clicked by a local photographer, show Sanjit, who was standing calmly in a public call office near a pharmacy, being surrounded by Manipur Police commandos and dragged inside the pharmacy. The next sequence shows them dragging his body out of the pharmacy.

As protests erupted, the Chief Minister called a press conference on August 5 and announced a judicial inquiry by Justice P.G. Aggarwal of the Gauhati High Court. Six commandos, including a sub-inspector, were suspended. Curfew was clamped and leaders of the protests were arrested.

The crackdown only prompted a larger and more vigorous movement to put pressure on the government to punish the guilty commandos. Agitating students rallied under the Manipur University Students’ Union (MUSU) in solidarity with the mass movement, which was now being spearheaded by the Apunba Lup, an umbrella organisation of 32 different outfits. The protesters demanded that the Chief Minister resign owning moral responsibility.

The events are reminiscent of similar protests that swept the insurgency-affected State in 2004 over the alleged rape and murder of a young woman, Thangjam Manorama, on July 11, 2004. The Apunba Lup was formed shortly after the Manorama incident came to light.

Manorama’s bullet-ridden body was found 4 km from Ngariyan Mapao Maring village in Imphal East district, a few hours after she was picked up by Assam Rifles personnel on the suspicion of being a militant.

Emotions ran high in the State as people thronged curfew-bound streets demanding the immediate withdrawal of the AFSPA.

The Act, which has been in operation in Manipur since September 8, 1980, and is applicable to all the north-eastern States, allows any commissioned or non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank from the armed forces to enter and search any premises without a warrant, arrest without a warrant and even fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the extent of causing death, against any person acting in contravention of any law in the notified disturbed area. Relentless struggles of Manipur’s civil society against human rights violations by the security forces and the misuse of the AFSPA in the name of counter-insurgency operations forced New Delhi to constitute a committee led by Justice (retd) B.P. Jeevan Reddy to review the AFSPA.

Though the committee unambiguously recommended repeal of the controversial law – a “symbol of oppression, instrument of high-handedness” – the AFSPA is still in force. New Delhi’s refusal to repeal the controversial Act only made the iconic Manipuri woman, Irom Sharmila, much more determined to continue her “fast unto death”, which she began in November 2000 to protest against the killing of 10 youth by the security forces at Malom village near Imphal.

Eruption of the pent-up anger of Manipuris, be it over the July 23 incident or the Manorama incident, can be attributed to the people’s lack of trust in the security forces and the government.

There has been no visible effort by the government to pacify the agitators. Instead, it seems to have adopted a two-pronged approach, of cracking down on the leaders of the movement and tiring the people out by delaying any negotiation with the agitators.

While incidents of “fake encounters” are haunting Manipuris, the people of the troubled State do not remember any security personnel being punished for their involvement in extrajudicial killings or brutalities committed on innocent citizens. Any mishandling of the prevailing situation has the potential to snowball into a bigger crisis and push the State to a point of no-return.

DELHI
By Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta in New Delhi

DELHI has become paranoid about territorial security because of the fact that it is the National Capital Territory. It is not surprising, therefore, that the number of encounter killings by the Delhi Police has increased substantially in the past decade. In most of these cases, the special cell of the Delhi Police constituted to deal primarily with extraordinary cases has been involved. A few major encounter killings show striking similarities.

Chronicles of a few encounters are present in a report of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), one of the human rights organisations up in arms against these killings. They include:

*On March 31, 1997, the Delhi Police shot two businessmen dead in broad daylight in New Delhi’s busy Connaught Place. The men were unarmed. After being caught out, the police later presented the killing as a case of mistaken identity.

*On December 26, 2000, one Abu Shamal was picked up by the police from his Batla House residence in Okhla, New Delhi, and later shot dead. The police alleged that he had been involved in the bomb blast at the Red Fort on December 22, 2000.

*On November 3, 2002, two persons were shot dead by the police in south Delhi’s posh shopping complex, Ansal Plaza. According to the police, they were LeT terrorists and were killed in an exchange of fire. The witness to the incident refuted this claim.

*On December 8, 2003, the police shot dead two persons, allegedly Pakistani terrorists, near the Lotus Temple in south Delhi.

According to the PUDR report, in all these encounters, the police claim that the person killed was a “terrorist” or a “dreaded criminal”. They also claim to have got the information about their whereabouts through “private and secret” sources. They identify the bodies and find “evidence” that show the intention of the accused to commit a terrorist act (literature, weapons, and so on). First information reports (FIRs) that are filed state only the police version. None of the policemen involved in these encounters are injured despite claims of exchanges of fire.

“In most of these encounters, the witnesses who have refuted the claims are harassed,” says human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover. The PUDR report states that in the absence of any regular investigation into these cognisable offences committed by the police, whether an encounter can be established as real or fake depends on the arbitrary factor of whether or not there were witnesses willing and able to counter the police story – a difficult task under any circumstances.

Among the most recent cases of encounter in Delhi is the Batla House encounter on September 19, 2008. The police alleged that the two people killed (one a student of Jamia Milia Islamia university and the other a Class XI student) were responsible for the multiple blasts in the city a few days earlier.

However, the police version is fraught with loopholes. “It changed almost every day after the encounter. The police claimed that they were tracking these people since the Ahmedabad blasts; but then how come they could not prevent the Delhi blasts? If they had come to arrest Bashir, the mastermind of the Delhi blasts, as they claim, why were they not wearing bullet-proof jackets? Moreover, one of the dead had bullet injuries on his head as if he had been shot from close range. Both the dead had external injuries of torture. Yet, the Delhi government decided against a magisterial probe,” Manisha Sethi of Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association told Frontline. It is one year since the encounter, but there has not been any probe into the matter save for the National Human Rights Commission report, which vindicated the police.

Similarly, the police version in the Noida encounter of January 2009, the second most prominent encounter case, is that two terrorists out to stage an attack in Delhi on Republic Day had stopped at a tea stall, asking for directions, when an informer saw them. And not just that; the barrel of an AK-47 gun was peeping out of their bag. The versions of the Noida police and that of the Anti-Terrorism Squad differed vastly.

In Uttar Pradesh, a large number of petty criminals, gangsters and dacoits began to be killed by the police in the mid-1990s. At about the same time, the method was picked up and used by the Delhi Police, initially against alleged criminals, who were often killed on Delhi’s border with Uttar Pradesh, and then increasingly against alleged terrorists. “Delhi has developed its own encounter specialists. The encounters are often timed to create a sense of panic among the public, a feeling that the nation is under siege. Consequently, there is often public sanction to kill terrorists, whether or not they have actually committed a crime, in the name of public safety,” the PUDR report states.

KARNATAKA
By Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

A large number of allegations of fake encounter killings against the police in Karnataka are linked with the killing of “naxalites”. The worst incident of its kind took place on July 10, 2007, in Menasinahadya village in Chickmagalur district when a police team went looking for Gautham, who was the Karnataka State Committee member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). According to media reports of the time, acting on a tip-off that Gautham was holding a meeting in the Wodeyarmath area in Menasinahadya, the police went into the house where he was staying and in the “encounter” that followed killed Gautham and four others who were with him (the versions put out by the police and the activists differ).

A magisterial inquiry, which said that there were two “naxalites” (and not one as claimed by human rights activists) on the scene, gave credence to the police version. The case was brought to the notice of the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) last year; it is expected to deliver its judgment soon.

Until the mid-1990s, there was a feeling in Karnataka that the naxalite issue was more a problem of neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. Police officials in Karnataka felt they would have to deal with only the naxalites who entered their State from Andhra Pradesh. In the late 1990s, a team of police officials came to Bangalore from Andhra Pradesh and in a covert operation nabbed three members of the Central Committee of the People’s War Group: Nalla Adi Reddy, Arram Reddy Santosh Reddy and Seelam Naresh, whose accomplice betrayed them. Allegations were later made that the three were taken to Andhra Pradesh and killed by the police in an extrajudicial manner.

Karnataka began to look seriously at the naxalite issue after there were some local movements against landlords. This also led to the formation of an anti-naxalite squad, against whom several allegations of “encounter killings” (at least 13 “encounter deaths” of “naxalites” have taken place since 1999), many of them unproven, have been made by human rights activists.

One of the best-known encounter cases involving a naxalite was that of Saketh Rajan, who was killed along with an accomplice on February 6, 2005, again in Menasinahadya. He was the State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and was well known in the districts of western Karnataka as someone who had stood up for the rights of villagers and the tribal people. A progressive group of activists called the Citizen’s Initiative for Peace raised serious questions about the police’s role in the encounter, leading the then Chief Minister, N. Dharam Singh, to order an inquiry.

There have also been several cases involving encounter killings of persons with criminal background, especially in Bangalore. In the past year itself, there were close to 10 deaths of well-known criminals. This has been happening since a high-profile encounter in Bangalore in 1989.

According to details available with the South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring (SICHREM), an NGO in the State working especially on issues of custodial deaths and fake encounter killings, there have been several instances of the police shooting to kill fleeing suspects when they had an option to “shoot to injure”.

Mathew Philips, secretary of the SICHREM, cites several such encounter killings. Parandama, an accused in several murder cases, was killed on April 7, 2009, when, according to the police, he shot at them, forcing them to retaliate. In another case, Murthy, a thief was fleeing in a stolen lorry when the police shot and killed him on April 19, 2008. Other cases cited by Philips include the killing of two well-known criminals in Bangalore – Abdul Razak, an aide of Chota Rajan, on May 7, 2005, and Nasru on May 8, 2005.

“Even if a person is a criminal he has certain basic human rights, which the police tend to ignore, and the sad part is that the general public is so unaware that many of them condone such extrajudicial killings by the police as the price the criminals pay for their sins. There needs to be a change in the societal mindset on human rights,” said Philips.

TAMIL NADU
By T.S. Subramanian in Chennai

BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT
20091009262002003.jpg
The Police inspecting the site where J. Suresh alias “Baba” Suresh was killed in an “encounter” on November 11, 2008.

“Police encounters” in Tamil Nadu have followed an eerie pattern. Sample these:

*A police party spots “Punk” Kumar and three of his gang members on the outskirts of Chennai on December 12, 2006. The gang throws “country bombs” at the police. An inspector opens fire in “retaliation” and “Punk” Kumar is killed. He was allegedly involved in several cases of murder and extortion.

*On a tip-off, a police team combs the “forests” near Hosur, more than 300 km from Chennai, for “Vellai” Ravi and his associates on August 1, 2007. On seeing the police, the gang members lob “petrol bombs” and open fire at them. The police “retaliate”, and “Vellai” Ravi and Guna are killed. Ravi was wanted in five cases of murder.

*A police party stops Mithun Chakravarthy, an accused in four cases of murder, near Kodiamman temple near Karanthai in Thanjavur town, on April 3, 2008. He throws a “country bomb” at the policemen, an inspector opens fire, and Mithun Chakravarthy is hit on the chest and he dies.

Others who allegedly “threw country bombs” at the police and paid with their lives include Sura alias Suresh of Vyasarpadi in Chennai in November 2002, Rajan alias “Urundai” Rajan on May 29, 2006, Nagoor Meeran on June 7, 2006, “Kora” Krishnan on November 18, 2006, J. Suresh alias “Baba” Suresh of Korukkupet in Chennai in November 2008, and Shanmugam alias “Kolakara” Shanmugam on February 2, 2009. No policeman has ever been killed in these encounters.

The “encounter” scenarios have another uncannily similar pattern. The policemen would be transporting the “accused criminal” from the court to the prison or vice versa. The police vehicle would develop a flat tyre or get involved in an accident. Using the confusion, the criminal would try to escape (after an “abortive” attempt to snatch the rifle from the escorting policemen, in some situations), and the police would open fire at him.

On February 5, 2007, “Manal Medu” (sand mound) Sankar, who was being taken back to the Central Prison in Madurai from a court at Mayiladuthurai near Thanjavur, was killed in similar circumstances. The police vehicle was involved in an accident near Old Gandharvakottai in Pudukottai district when Sankar attempted to snatch the inspector’s revolver and the police shot him dead in “self-defence”.

In the past 10 years in Tamil Nadu, said a police officer frankly, 70 persons had been killed in police encounters. “While most of those killed are rowdies and anti-social elements, all the encounters were fake,” he said. “Manal Medu” Sankar, who feared that he would be killed in an encounter, had approached a magistrate’s court for protection. He was killed despite the court ruling to give him protection.

A. Marx, organiser of the Tamil Nadu chapter of the People’s Union for Human Rights (PUHR), said, “The Tamil Nadu Police have a history of staging encounters since the 1980s. About 60 persons have been killed in encounters in the past 15 years. Twenty-two of them were killed between May 2006 and September 2009, during the current DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] rule.”

When it comes to police encounters, there is little to choose between the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and DMK governments, he said. Eleven men were killed in police encounters in Chennai city alone between 2002 and 2004 when the AIADMK was in power.

Marx, who is also the coordinator of the Federation against Fake Encounters, said: “There is no history of criminal activities or extremism being brought under control by these police encounters. On the one hand, the number of encounters is on the rise. On the other, there is an increase in criminal activities. In 99 per cent of the ‘encounter deaths’, the victims had already been disarmed, detained and tortured.”

The story of encounter deaths in Tamil Nadu begins with the killing of the naxalites Balan, Iruttu alias Pachai and others in Dharmapuri district in the early 1980s. The killing of Ravindran, a Marxist-Leninist, in an encounter with the police in the district in December 2000 grabbed the headlines and attracted widespread criticism. Ravindran, an agricultural engineer, was employed as a development officer in a bank, when he was killed.

Siva alias Parthiban, who shared Ravindran’s political philosophy, also lost his life in an encounter later. As recently as April 19, 2008, a Maoist called Naveen Prasad was killed in an encounter near Edakavunchi village, close to Kodaikanal. Tamil extremists too have been targeted in encounters.

A police officer said if a proper inquiry was conducted, most of the police officers who staged the encounters would be found guilty.

“The government protects them by ordering an inquiry by the Revenue Divisional Officer under Section 145 of the Police Standing Order. The RDO will conduct an inquiry but he will not find fault with the police officers,” he said. The police had “no legal or moral justification” to stage these encounters, and several police officers did them to win medals and gallantry awards, the officer conceded.

Henri Tiphagne, lawyer and a member of the national core group of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), described the NHRC guidelines to be followed in dealing with deaths in “police encounters” as “wonderful” and regretted that “there is no proof of their being put into practice in any State”. The guidelines were enunciated in December 2003. Since then, several hundred “encounters” have taken place in the country. Only very rarely in these cases, he said, had the guidelines been followed.

In Tamil Nadu, not a single first information report (FIR) has been registered against any police officer, including those involved in the killing of the brigand Veerappan and “Vellai” Ravi, Tiphagne said. Instead, several of these police officers were awarded medals, he pointed out. Tiphagne, who is also executive director of an NGO called People’s Watch, demanded a new Police Act which respected both the police and the citizens. “Democratic policing is the call of the hour,” he said.

L.K. Tripathy, former Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu, in a circular to the State Director-General of Police on August 8, 2007, insisted that the NHRC guidelines be observed strictly. Failure to adhere to the guidelines, he said, would be “viewed seriously” and the district officials concerned held responsible for non-compliance.

According to Marx, “the Police Department, which kept quiet for six months, staged four encounters in April 2008 alone. What can we say if the government’s own circular is thrown to the winds?”

Recently, the NHRC asked the State government to pay a relief of Rs.3 lakh to the family of Suresh alias Sura, who, the NHRC found, was killed by the police in a fake encounter at Clive Battery in Chennai on November 18, 2002.

The NHRC observed that Suresh might have had a criminal record but that could not be a justification to eliminate him.

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