Challenging a verdict

Print edition : August 23, 2013

Shahzad Ahmad's lawyer Satish Tamta (right) and Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association president Manisha Sethi during an interaction with the media on the court verdict, in New Delhi on July 31. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Shahzad Ahmed being taken to a court in Delhi in February 2010. Photo: PTI

Mohan Chand Sharma, Inspector of Delhi Police Special Cell, was killed in the Batla House shootout. Photo: PTI

Human rights activists feel that the conviction of Shahzad Ahmad in the 2008 Batla House encounter case is based completely on the debatable police version of the event.

THE conviction of the alleged Indian Mujahideen (IM) operative Shahzad Ahmad in the 2008 Batla House encounter case for murdering Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma of the Special Cell of the Delhi Police and injuring two others has evoked mixed reactions. While the Delhi Police feel vindicated, several human rights activists, who had raised doubts about the police’s version of the encounter, plan to move a higher court against the decision.

On July 30, the court of Additional Sessions Judge Rajender Kumar Shastri in Delhi sentenced Shahzad to life imprisonment and imposed a penalty of Rs.95,000 on him. The court declared that Rs.40,000 of the fine should be given to the family of the deceased police officer. It found Shahzad guilty of murder, attempt to murder, obstructing and assaulting public servants and grievously injuring police officers. Pointing out that it “was not a sudden confrontation”, the judge said: “The police had information, based on which a raiding party was formed well in advance. The accused had no licence to fire at police persons who came there to investigate a case. They were expected to assist the police, not attack them.”

Shahzad was being tried for murder and assault in the present case while in another court he was being tried for his alleged IM links. He is the lone accused in the case of the murder of Inspector Sharma.

The Batla House encounter is one of the three most controversial encounters of the recent past, the others being the Ishrat Jahan and Sohrabuddin Sheikh killings. The Batla House encounter happened on September 19, 2008, six days after the Delhi serial blasts, which killed 30 people and left more than 100 injured. According to the police, the Special Cell received a tip-off about suspected IM operatives involved in the blasts hiding in Flat number 108 at L-18 in the Batla House area of South Delhi. An encounter ensued between the alleged terrorists and the team of the Special Cell of the Delhi Police headed by Sharma, which had gone there for a routine investigation. During the investigation, two suspected terrorists, Atif Ameen and Mohammad Sajjid, allegedly opened fire on the police but were killed. Sharma was killed in this shootout. The police claimed that they arrested two residents of the flat while two others, one of whom was Shahzad, managed to escape. Shahzad was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh Police in February 2010 in his hometown, Azamgarh, in eastern U.P.

NHRC “probe”

Given the continually changing police versions of the event, several Congress leaders and residents of Batla House alleged that it could have been a fake encounter. In the course of the hue and cry over the encounter, the Supreme Court refused to institute a judicial probe and instead appointed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to conduct an investigation. The NHRC report in 2009 declared the encounter genuine. However, activists rejected it as the NHRC team did not visit the spot or talk even once to the residents of Batla House or the arrested individuals. Instead, it relied completely on the documents released by the police. The Union government remained clueless about handling the case as it felt that the probe could affect the morale of the police force, which had lost one of its most decorated officers in the shootout.

The judgment of the Additional Sessions Court also relied mostly on the prosecution case and human rights activists alleged that the defence case, despite being a very strong one, was ignored. The judgment relied mostly on circumstantial evidence and police witnesses as the investigating police team could not produce any solid evidence. Three pieces of evidence produced by the police in the court became crucial. One, the expired passport of Shahzad was allegedly found in the flat where the incident occurred, suggesting that Shahzad was indeed a resident of that flat. Two, police witnesses claimed that Shahzad had fired at Sharma and other policemen before escaping. Three, the police claimed that Atif Ameen, who was killed in the shootout, had been in touch over the phone with Shahzad earlier and had booked a railway ticket to Azamgarh for September 24, 2008, for him. The police claimed that Shahzad had planned his escape from the city after carrying out the serial blasts.

JTSA report

On July 31, the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association (JTSA) released a report titled “Beyond reasonable doubt? The conviction of Shahzad Ahmad”. The report, which offers a critique of the judgment and a point-by-point rebuttal of the police version, points out that the murder weapon mentioned by the police was never recovered. It says at least the shells of bullets that Shahzad had allegedly fired could have been recovered, but these were missing in the recovery items.

It notes that Flat No 108 was on the fourth floor in a heavily congested area and it was impossible for any person to escape from there when the police had surrounded the building from all sides. It further states that Shahzad was first referred as Pappu and that in different depositions before the court the police had identified Pappu with different names: Shahnawaj, Shahbaz and Shahzad subsequently.

It says no independent witness of the Batla House encounter was produced by the police. All witnesses presented were police personnel, who told the court that they did not see Shahzad escaping.

Questioning the veracity of the police version, JTSA president Manisha Sethi told Frontline: “Firstly, if the police claim to have phone records of conversation between Shahzad and Atif, why were no voice records produced in the court? Secondly, no other belongings of Shahzad were recovered from the flat which could very well mean that Shahzad’s passport could have been planted there. How do the police claim that Shahzad was a resident of that flat? Thirdly, is it possible that a terrorist books a railway ticket to escape 11 days after the blasts?”

The report further notes that even the post-mortem reports of Atif Ameen and Mohammad Sajjid were not examined by the court. “The post-mortem reports could have been the most important pieces of evidence. It clearly shows bullet wounds on the back of Atif’s body. Sajjid’s body had firearm injuries only on the head. Physical wounds made by some blunt and sharp object were also found on Atif’s body,” Manisha Sethi said.

The JTSA report also notes: “The entry points of each of these gunshot wounds—and the fact that all but one bullet is travelling in a downward direction—strongly suggests that he [Atif] was held down by force (which also explain the injuries on the back and leg region), while bullets were pumped down his forehead, back and head. In which genuine crossfire do people receive injuries only in the back and head region?”

Describing the judgment as “riddled with tautology and obfuscations”, the report says: “All that is proved, beyond inconsistent police testimony, is that it is possible that the accused knew the deceased. And this possible association is the only ground for conviction. In sum, the judgment has merely accepted the case put forward by the prosecution. The prosecution merely gives the version provided by the police that are inconsistent. These inconsistencies are ignored. The judgment merely argues for the possibility of the police account and in a strange and twisted logic such possibility, accepted on the most flimsy grounds, provides the basis on which a conviction for the most heinous crimes is carried through.”

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