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In search of the truth

Published : Mar 30, 2002 00:00 IST

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Reports that evidence from the site of the Panchalthan killings was tampered with complicate the hunt for the culprits.

FORTY-EIGHT dead; five bodies exhumed twice over; eight suspended officials; five major criminal investigations and two judicial commissions: and still the whole truth about the welter of killings in Anantnag in March 2000 remains elusive.

On March 7, The Times of India reported that efforts had been made to tamper with forensic samples that were submitted for DNA tests to establish the identities of five people killed at Panchalthan (Frontline, April 28, 2000) a few days after the massacre of 35 Sikhs at Chattisinghpora (Frontline, April 14, 2000). The five, officials said, were terrorists who were possibly responsible for the massacre. Most people, however, believed that they were innocent civilians, kidnapped and executed to cover up the failure to find the Chattisinghpora killers. The Panchalthan killings sparked a series of protests, and eight people died when the police fired on a demonstration at Brakpora. Although the Srinagar-based Urdu newspaper Al Safa had carried a detailed account of evidence of DNA tampering over a year before the The Times of India did, the controversy attracted little national attention. Now, the newspaper's allegations of an officially-sponsored attempt to corrupt evidence has sparked a fresh hunt for the big fish responsible for the Panchalthan killings: but the DNA furore could yet turn out to be a huge red herring.

It all began on March 25, 2000, when the Adjutant of the Army's 7 Rashtriya Rifles battalion filed a report with the local police claiming that their troops had killed five terrorists during the course of a "specific cordon and search operation". "The identity of the terrorists," the report reads, "were not known." The Rashtriya Rifles' report was then attached to a First Information Report (FIR) that cited Section 307 of the Ranbir Penal Code, which deals with the use of lethal force in self-defence. A day later, Abdul Rashid Khan, concerned about his father who had been missing for two days, decided to search the ruins of the encounter site. There, he claimed to have found scraps of blue cloth, which he believed were fragments from his father's turban, as well as his father's identification card.

Police officials were sceptical about Khan's claims. They argued that it was improbable that a plastic identity card would have emerged unscathed from a fire that charred the alleged terrorists beyond recognition. Anantnag residents, however, proved unwilling to be persuaded thus. After several days of protests, the Anantnag Chief Judicial Magistrate ordered Deputy Superintendent of Police Sheikh Abdul Rahman to investigate the issue. The same day, April 1, District Magistrate Pawan Kotwal ordered that the bodies of the Panchalthan dead be exhumed. Even as Rahman set about securing appointments with doctors handling forensic cases at the Government Medical College in Srinagar, the Brakpora killings took place. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah now announced that he was ordering exhumation proceedings, omitting to mention that the process was already under way.

Through April 6 and 7, doctors conducted extraordinary on-site autopsies in full view of television cameras. What remained of all five bodies was identified by their relatives. However, this identification process was problematic. Khan's mother, Roshan Jan, said that a nose and the beard on a fragment of jaw that was recovered from a small bag in one grave were those of her husband, Jumma Khan Faqir. She responded with outrage to questioning. "How could I not recognise my own husband," she demanded. The next day, however, both she and Khan identified a body exhumed from a different grave. This time they based their claim on a missing tooth on the left side of the jaw. Although Khan and his mother said Faqir had only one tooth extracted, the forensic experts found four teeth missing.

DNA tests were to settle the issue: although, of course, it is important to remember that the Army had never claimed the five were not the people their relatives said they were. According to the autopsy reports, obtained by Frontline, 11 blood samples were collected from relatives - or people who claimed to be relatives - of the dead. Sealed in the presence of Deputy Superintendent Rahman, the blood samples, along with tissue samples collected from the dead, were taken by road to Srinagar. There, the head of the forensic team, Dr. Balbir Kaur, learned that two separate sets of samples were to be sent to the Department of Biotechnology-affiliated Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics in Hyderabad, and the Union Ministry of Home Affairs-run Central Forensic Sciences Laboratory (CFSL) in Kolkata. The package was opened, divided into two, and sent on again.

For the best part of a year, nothing happened. Then, on February 26, 2001, the Hyderabad facility wrote to the then-Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) at Anantnag, Munir Khan, pointing out serious flaws in the samples that they had received. Blood marked as that of Rafiqa Khan, the daughter of Jumma Khan Amirullah, and Nayeema Ara and Raja Bano Malik, the daughter and mother of Ghulam Hassan Malik, had in fact been taken from men. The sample that was purportedly that of Ara contained blood from two separate individuals. While none of the blood samples taken for matching the other three bodies tested positive, their authenticity was obviously in doubt. The letter, however, did not mention whether the blood samples that were taken from relatives of the remaining three bodies matched each other: that is, whether they were taken from relatives at all, or just individuals at random.

SSP Munir Khan, sources say, notified his superiors, and a decision was taken to wait for the results from Kolkata. "The idea," said a high-level Jammu and Kashmir government official, "was to see if there had been some kind of goof-up, or the tampering detected in Hyderabad was intentional." The CFSL had at first refused to take the samples. Then, in a letter dated May 17, 2000, its Director, M.S. Rao, wrote to Munir Khan asking for "proper control blood samples". This was to rule out the twin possibilities that those killed may have been stepchildren of the parent whose blood sample had been taken, or that the children whose blood samples were used may have been the victims' stepchildren.

Dr. Balbir Kaur then initiated a fresh sampling process, on May 29, 2000. But instead of starting tests once he received the new samples, M.S. Rao wrote to the Anantnag Police, criticising them for not having informed him of the existence of further relatives. The police replied on June 22, 2000, saying that the error had occurred because they had assumed that samples of only blood relatives were needed.

This correspondence should have put an end to the dispute, and allowed the CFSL to get to work and submit a report. For reasons best known to them, the facility chose to do nothing. The test results were finally handed over to officials of the Jammu and Kashmir Police on March 14, over a week after The Times of India story appeared. The results, sources told Frontline, had also confirmed reports that some samples appeared to have been tampered with, although it is not clear if these relate to the same individuals referred to by the Hyderabad facility. The Kolkata report, the sources said, also pointed to tissue from two separate bodies being present in the same sample. It is unclear, again, whether this was simply a reference to the fact that the nose and jaw fragments discovered in the first grave did not belong to the body it contained, or that it hinted at some more serious effort to tamper with evidence.

Who, then, might have tampered with the DNA samples? When retired Jammu and Kashmir High Court Judge B.A. Kuchay begins his inquiry into the issue, he may have a hard time finding answers in the mandated eight weeks. Balbir Kaur and her fellow doctors are among the six people who are now suspended. If they had attempted to interfere with the results, however, it is unlikely that their enterprise would have been quite so crude and easy to detect. Deputy Superintendent Rahman had no role in the Panchalthan killings, while SSP Khan only came to the district after his predecessor was transferred out in the wake of the Brakpora killings. Neither of them has an obvious motive. As for the Army, it had no clear reason to tamper with evidence either, since it had not claimed that the five dead people were not local residents: every terrorist is, after all, someone's relative.

Sadly, no one is addressing the real issue - which is the question of whether the five dead people were abducted alive. The relatives of those killed insist that they were, but the report of the Justice Ratnavel Pandian Commission of Inquiry, which investigated the Brakpora firing, casts light on the issue. The report, which the Jammu and Kashmir government has studiously refused to make public, creates doubts about the relatives' accounts. The relatives of Zahoor Dalal filed a missing person report on March 27, 2001, saying that he had been missing for three days. In the report, however, they clearly said that they did not suspect foul play. Yet, a day later, Dalal's uncle, Mohammad Yousaf Dalal, insisted that he had been kidnapped and killed at Panchalthan.

Other elements of Justice Pandian's account are even more interesting. The chowkidar (watchman) of Brari Angan, from where Jumma Khan Faqir and Jumma Khan Amirullah were allegedly kidnapped, filed an FIR on March 26, after the encounter at Panchalthan, saying that they had been kidnapped by "some unidentified masked gunmen". Before the Commission, however, the chowkidar claimed to have filed the complaint on March 24, which was a day before the encounter. This contention was hotly disputed by the Station House Officer (SHO), Syed Ghaznafar. The issue was crucial since Faqir's son, Abdul Rashid Khan, told the Commission that his father was picked up not by "unidentified gunmen", but by the Army. He claimed to have visited the 7 Rashtriya Rifles camp at Utrasoo along with the chowkidar in search of his father. Justice Pandian rejected these claims, noting that "the documentary evidence as borne out from the FIR relating to this case amply supports and corroborates the version of the SHO".

Such contradictions in witness testimony do not themselves disprove or prove that the Panchalthan victims were not kidnapped and killed by local army commanders desperate to save face after Chattisinghpora. But investigations so far have done little to substantiate this proposition. While the Army's FIR has been rejected by the Anantnag Police, it has yet to come up with a coherent alternative account. Early reports that Dalal had been kidnapped in a red van led nowhere, after it was found that the vehicle in question had not been in working order for several months. There was also no evidence that the police officer accused of driving the vehicle, Deputy Superintendent Tejinder Singh, had used it in the days before Dalal's disappearance. Nor has the identity of those who abducted the two Jumma Khans from Brari Angan been established. Sources told Frontline that the Army had refused to allow its officers to be questioned, or to hand over a roll containing the names of all those who were involved in the Panchalthan operation on security grounds. It had, however, handed over the weapons used for ballistic tests - a somewhat pointless exercise since no one has denied that they were fired at Panchalthan.

But politics, not policing, is taking centrestage. Chief Minister Abdullah, his confidants say, is convinced that the DNA fracas was engineered by the Union government in order to embarrass the National Conference. They point to the fact that the media leaks came days before Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's March 17 assertion that there was a "problem of governance" in Jammu and Kashmir, and hope that positive DNA results will allow them to turn the fire on the Union government-controlled Army. Forensic experts from both Kolkata and Hyderabad are now scheduled to collect fresh samples on their own. What they find will not settle the Panchalthan issue one way or the other. It could, however, precipitate a fateful political showdown.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Mar 30, 2002.)

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