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In cold blood

Print edition : Oct 09, 2009 T+T-
The body of Ishrat Jahan, who was killed in an alleged fake encounter in Ahmedabad on June 15, 2004.-AMIT DAVE/REUTERS

The body of Ishrat Jahan, who was killed in an alleged fake encounter in Ahmedabad on June 15, 2004.-AMIT DAVE/REUTERS

FOR five long years, the families of Ishrat Jahan and Javed Sheikh have been crying themselves hoarse saying the two were innocent and were killed in a calculated move by the Gujarat Police. But the police claimed that the duo were Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives on a mission, along with two others, to kill Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, and that acting on intelligence information, they had intercepted the car in which Ishrat and Javed were travelling and shot all the four passengers therein.

The families got the first taste of justice on September 7 when Ahmedabad Metropolitan Magistrate S.P. Tamang submitted his statutory inquest report of the incident, which occurred on June 15, 2004. In a detailed, scathing and honest account of the encounter, Tamang sums up that the four were murdered in a systemic manner, cold bloodedly, mercilessly and cruelly. The report will be part of a special investigation that has been set up to probe into the unnatural deaths of Ishrat and Javed and the two alleged Pakistani LeT operatives who were in the car. Tamangs report has opened a can of worms. As he reconstructs the events and the actual killing, a horrific and disturbing picture unravels itself. The report says innocent people were brutally killed in the name of protecting the Chief Minister. Tamang accuses a few top police officers in the State of carrying out these encounters in order to get promotions. He states quite bluntly that the entire Ishrat-Javed encounter was stage-managed.

According to the Gujarat Police, Ishrat and Javed, LeT operatives who were out to assassinate Modi, also had on them ammunition and weapons to blow up the rath yatra that was to be held in Gujarat at the time. The police maintain that they intercepted them and two other men, allegedly Pakistanis entering Ahmedabad and, after an exchange of gunfire, killed the quartet in the car.

The families of Ishrat and Javed, their counsel, and human rights groups, however, have a completely different story to tell. According to Javeds father Gopinath Pillai (Javed had converted to Islam), his son and family, who had driven from Pune to Kerala to spend a week with them, returned on June 8 and reached Ahmednagar en route on June 10. Javed told his wife, Sajeda, that he needed to go to Mumbai for a day and would return by June 12 to pick her up. Sajeda corroborates this by saying that Javed left for Mumbai telling her that he needed to collect some money and would be back within a day. Her last conversation with him was on June 11.

According to Ishrats mother, Shamima Kausar, whose family lived in Mumbra (near Thane), Ishrat had started working for Javed a few months before the incident. The family was entirely dependent on her for an income. Javed had said Ishrat would need to travel with him occasionally. Therefore, it was not unnatural for her daughter to leave the city on work, she said. Javed had apparently asked Ishrat to meet him on June 11 for some job, and Ishrat left a message for her mother saying she would be in touch.

We kept calling her but it kept saying, out of coverage area. We got the news of her death on June 15, said Shamima Kausar.

Little information is available on what happened to Ishrat and Javed between June 11 and June 15. A human rights activist alleges that the duo were kidnapped and kept in a secret location until the Gujarat Police figured out how to plan the encounter.

When the killings were made public, there were many missing pieces to the puzzle. For instance, why did Ishrats family not know where she had gone? What were they doing in Gujarat? Who were the other two men in the car?

Film-maker Shubradeep Chakravorty, who has done extensive research and documentation on the incident, says there are no missing pieces. By talking to family members and friends, it is generally believed, the events up to June 11 can be pieced together. No one knows anything after that.

They were picked up by the police. I can confirm that. And in all likelihood it was done in collusion with the Maharashtra Police, said a former Gujarat police officer.

Why was Javed targeted? A source in the police said Javed fitted the bill of a suspicious person who could be involved in anti-national activities. The most incriminating evidence they had against him was that he had two passports with different names. He had also travelled to Gulf countries on many occasions and hence the conclusion that he had been recruited by the LeT. He was an easy target. Many of these men are profiled and their movements are tracked by the intelligence wing, said the officer.

Ishrat, on the other hand, appeared to be a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, said the source. When Javed was kidnapped, she might have been present and taken too. Perhaps, she saw too much and, therefore, had to be done away with.

Ishrats background has nothing dubious about it. She came from a poor family that lives in Mumbra. She was a second-year B.Sc. student aspiring to become a teacher. Just days before the encounter, she had been tutoring children. As the summer holidays had begun, she needed money and, therefore, took up the job Javed offered.

The Tamang report is the first move in the legal battle, said lawyer Mukul Sinha, who has helped Ishrats family in the judicial process. The silver lining is that names have been named and the cloud of doubt that Ishrat and Javed may have been terrorists has been lifted. For the families it is very important. Magistrate Tamang debunks the police claim that the four were LeT operatives who were on a terror assignment to kill Modi. By scrutinising the autopsy reports and recording statements of Ishrats and Javeds relatives, and by piecing together other forms of evidence, he says the police officers colluded with each other, for their personal interest, which included to secure their promotion, to maintain his posting, so as to falsely show excellent performance, to get special appreciation from the Honble Chief Minister and to gain popularity.

Some of Tamangs key findings are:

1. From the autopsy report he finds that the deaths must have occurred much ahead of the time given. The police say Ishrat and Javed were shot around 4 a.m. on June 15, 2004. Rigor mortis normally sets in two to three hours after death occurs. In their case, Tamang says, rigor mortis was well developed when the post-mortem was conducted at 3-40 p.m. on June 15. If they had been killed at 4 a.m., rigor mortis would not have been so severe.

2. Tamang says the victims were never in a confrontation with the police. He proves this by stating that the bullet injuries on the bodies were from being shot at close range. He says that when shot at close range the exit wound would be bigger than the entry wound. And this is the case in each of the bodies. For instance, one of Javeds bullet entry wounds measured 1 cm. The bullets exit point measured 1.5x1.0 cm. As per the principle of medical jurisprudence, the deceased was shot dead from close distance, and at the time when said deceased was in sitting position. Javed was shot 16 times, says the report.

3. If they were in a confrontation, why were there no casualties among the cops, asks Tamang. He states that the weapons found near the bodies were unlicensed and were planted by the police to make the scene look genuine. Hand-washes taken of the dead prove that none of them had held a weapon.

4. He believes the identity cards of the two alleged Pakistani men were false and planted. The names on the card were in English. Tamang construes that if they were Pakistani, the language should have been Urdu.

5. An amount of Rs.2,06,610 was found in a suitcase in the boot of the car. Tamang says such an amount would normally be kept under lock and key, but it was not. He believes the police planted that cash. Furthermore, if the victim was travelling, he should have money on his person. Not a single rupee was found on Javed.

6. Also, if this was a chance encounter, where were the normal possessions of the passengers, asks Tamang. For example, wrist watches, mobile phones, wallets, and so on. None of these was found on the bodies.

7. Tracing the events that led up to the encounter, Tamang says the victims were kept under unlawful detention and then mercilessly shot in a set-up. He says there is no evidence linking Ishrat and Javed to the LeT.

8. What comes as most damning for the Gujarat government is the detailed list of police officers involved in the encounter. Among the high-ranking officers, Tamang names K.R. Kaushik, Commissioner of Police, Ahmedabad; P.P. Pandey, Joint Police Commissioner, Crime Branch; D.G. Vanzara, Deputy Inspector-General of Police (at that time a Crime Branch officer); G.L. Singhal, Additional Police Commissioner; and N.K Amin, Assistant Commissioner of Police.

Ironically, Vanzara was arrested in April 2008 for confessing to the killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kauser Bi in an encounter in Ahmedabad in November 2005.

A question that begs to be asked is why the police thought they could get away with the killing? They tried to make it look like an encounter, but from the emerging evidence it is becoming more and more apparent that it was a planned killing.

The former police official said: After the riots, the police were given a free hand in doing away with any threat to Modi. Perhaps they got a little ahead of themselves and thought they would get away with this too.

The Modi government has rubbished Tamangs report, stating that it was bad in law and would be challenged in an appropriate court. State Minister Jay Narayan Vyas said the report by the Metropolitan Magistrate did not have any sanction of appropriate law as the Gujarat High Court had ordered a committee to probe the same incident. The Gujarat High Court has since stayed the report.

A lawyer in Ahmedabad said the magistrates report was a statutory requirement in the case of encounter deaths. Vyas also said an affidavit filed by the Home Ministry in the High Court had made clear references to the terrorist connections of the four. Quoting from the affidavit, Vyas said the Centre had received specific inputs that the LeT had been planning to carry out terrorist activities in various parts of the country, including Gujarat, and that it was planning to assassinate top national and State leaders. When Ishrat and Javed were shot, the Centre had made some noises about having intelligence evidence proving the duos link to militant groups. That evidence is yet to be shared.

Following the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, there have been five major encounter killings in the State. The police have justified each incident by saying they had adequate information to prove that the victims were militants on a mission to murder Modi.

A petty criminal, Sameer Khan, was shot dead in Ahmedabad on October 22, 2002, for allegedly conspiring to kill Modi. Sadiq Jamal Mehtar was killed on January 13, 2003, also for the same reason. Shubradeep Chakravorty, who tracked Mehtars killing, said the man had been charged in a small gambling case. He was very poor and had been in the Gulf for employment, but was not paid. When he returned the police caught him and said he was in the Gulf training under the LeT and killed him when he tried to escape.

Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Kauser Bi were arrested from a bus on their way from Hyderabad to Gujarat. Both were killed by the Gujarat Police accusing them of being part of a conspiracy to assassinate Modi. Kauser Bis body was never found. Geeta Johri, Inspector-General of Police, Gujarat, was asked to probe into this incident. A consequence of her report was the arrest of top police officers Vanzara and R.K. Pandiyan.