Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Killer on Loose

Last month when an Indian transport company owner was arrested in Fresno in California for beating his wife, a few old pages of loss and injustice ruffled in Kashmir. The accused, Avtar Singh, was charged with domestic violence in US after his wife testified against him but in Kashmir, several families had been waiting for many years for him to face trial in the murders of their sons, husbands and brothers. Singh was an officer of the Indian Army and is on the Interpol’s wanted list, accused of murder in Kashmir but like several times in the past, the Indian government did not make any serious attempt to extradite Singh.

With a Special Investigation Team (SIT) report indicting him of murder of a Kashmiri Human Rights Activist and a High court appearance order waiting against him in Srinagar, Singh managed to escape the bodies of justice by evading trial and fleeing to Canada and then US with, what people in Kashmir believe, the support of Army and MHA. Singh is also accused of exterminating all the evidences of Human Rights Activist’s murder.

Avtar Singh was a Major in Unit 35 of Rashtriya Rifles and posted in Srinagar in 1990’s where he was then known as ‘Bulbul’. Journalists who reported then knew him as a ‘tyrant’ and ‘a man drunk with power’. Singh was involved in counter-insurgency operations and posted in Rawalpora.

But in the spring of 1996, Singh, is believed to have tortured and murdered Jaleel Andrabi, a Human Rights activist. Andrabi, a lawyer, headed a group called Kashmir Jurists Group. In 1995, Andrabi had spoken at the UN Human rights Commission and was going to speak out again. It was 1996 and the word ‘Human rights’ was not liked much by Army, who either came down on irksome things themselves or asked the Ikhwanis, former militants who later switched sides and worked under the aegis of Indian Army. Together, they ruled Kashmir then and Andrabi, with his Human Rights talk, had made powerful enemies.

One evening in March, when Andrabi, 42, and his wife, Riffat, were returning home, their white Maruti car was intercepted by some Armymen and Ikhwanis. In February that year, Andrabi had been suspicious that his life was in danger and even took pictures of gunmen in civvies watching over his house. That evening on March 8, Andrabi was dragged out of the car and Riffat left behind who followed them in an auto only to see them speed away.

Riffat and Andrabi’s brother, Arshid, contacted the police who assured them that they would find him soon. A case of disappearance was registered six days later on March 14 under the directions of the high court and on March 18, a Special Investigation Team, heahed by an IPS officer, IK Misra, the then Srinagar Police chief, was formed under the order of the high court.

On March 27, Jalil Andrabi dead body was recovered from Jehlum river near Rajbagh. Andrabi’s body was in a burlap bag and his hands were tied behind him with a tent pitching rope and a stone had been tied to his body. He had been shot in the head and his eyes had been gouged out. There were visible marks of torture on his body and he been dead for a week at least.

After the body was found, there were massive demonstrations in valley and the SIT worked faster. They recovered the pictures Andrabi had taken of the gunmen roaming around his home but could not locate any of them. They then looked for Sikandar Ganai, another counter insurgent, who Arshid said, was following his brother.

On April 5, Police recovered five dead bodies on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway, 5 kms from Pampore town. Four of them were surrendered militants and one of the dead bodies was identified as that of Sikander Ganaie, a surrendered militant who operated with 35 RR located in Budgam. Ganaie was the one SIT was looking for and his murder took out a link from solving the case. It then came out that the other dead counterinsurgents too lived in the campus of 35 RR Budgam. People who saw the bodies then said that the hands of the dead people were tied with pieces of rope.

Ganaie’s wife told police that she suspected Major Avtar Singh and another Ikhwani, Mohammad Ashraf Khan, of killing her husband. After great effort, the SIT managed to find Ashraf Khan. According to the SIT report, during interrogation, Ashraf Khan revealed that Major Avtar Singh along with Sikandar brought a person wearing coat, pants and tie into the camp. “Six persons namely Sultan, Balbir Singh, Doctor Vaid, Mushtaq and Hyder were also present there. Heated exchange of words (arguments) took place between Avtar Singh and apprehended person which irritated Avtar Singh and others. He was beaten and confined in a room,” the SIT report said. Ashraf said that after that, Avtar Singh came out in the lawn and asked him if he knew the person confined in the room and when he replied in negative, Major Avtar Singh told him that he is a leading advocate namely Jaleel Indrabi who propagates against army and assists militants and that is why he has been apprehended. “Because a person who maligns army and helped militants will not be forgiven. We will eliminate him,” Ashraf recounted Avtar Singh’s words to police. “On the same day during evening hours he heard hue and cry from the same room where Jalil Indrabi was kept. Thereafter, he saw army personnel loading a gunny bag in an army truck and left the camp. He found Avtar Singh in a demoralize state who told him that he had committed a mistake by killing Jalil Indrabi,” the report says.

Colonel B.S. Pundir, CO of 103 Battalion under whom Avtar Singh was serving told the SIT that in 1996, Singh was posted as Coy Commander D-Coy at Rawalpora, Srinagar carrying out anti terrorist operations. When Major Avtar Singh was questioned regarding the abduction and killing of Jalil Indrabi, he said that he had nothing to do with it and accused police of not investigating the case judiciously.

Singh then left Kashmir first for Punjab, and then fled India in 2005. He was first traced to Canada and later migrated to US where he ran a trucking business in Selma, Fresno County in California.

In 2006, the Jammu and Kashmir government has sought extradition of the alleged killer Major but the process never reached anywhere.

Jaleel Andrabi’s wife and brother have been waiting for the last 15 years for Singh to stand trial and Sikandar Ganie’s wife had to be put in a sanatorium in Rohtak when she couldn’t understand where her husband was killed by people he was working with. Four other counter insurgents whose pictures were taken by Andrabi disappeared for ever. Police officials who dealt with the case believed that Singh had exterminated all the people who could expose his role in the Andrabi murder. Only Ashraf survived and he has been in hiding for many years now expecting death for giving the statement incriminating Singh.

Andrabi’s family and other human right activists believe that Indian Army and Ministry of Home Affairs helped Singh flee India with a fake passport and also never tried for his extradition.

Now, with Amnesty International’s new statement urging India not to block way for Singh’s trial, it remains to be seen whether Singh will face trial for his all he stands accused of. Singh can refuse trial by a civil court and opt instead for trail by military court as he is protested by the AFSPA. But, it seems like a case of impunity beyond the AFSPA impunity where the serving officer of Indian Army is does not even face trial.

Maybe, once Singh comes within the domain of law, several more cases like that of Abdul Majid Shah re-surface. Shah’s body was found in the Jehlum river with a stone tied to him. Shah’s family believes that Singh hanged him to death for having a relationship with the younger sister of Singh’s then lover, who also became his wife for a while before he married another woman against whom he is charged of domestic abuse in US.

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