Eventful Death In Custody

The story has all the elements of high political drama. Two clashing narratives, of the family and the Chief Minister, wrapped around in thick sleaze of deep political corruption. Majid Maqbool traverses the layered power structure the death exposes.

At his residence in Loktipora, Bijbehara, the family of Syed Mohammad Yousuf wants to know why he was returned dead to them a day after he was called by Minister of State for Home, Nasir Aslam Wani to Srinagar. The family holds Wani and CM responsible for the death of Yousuf.

Sixty-one year old Yousuf, a close aide of Omar Abdullah and Farooq Abdullah and a longtime NC loyalist, was called by Omar Abdullah to his residence on September 29 along with Abdul Salam Reshi of Akingam Kokernag and Muhammad Yusuf of Ganderbal to settle a money transaction issue.

Yousuf died soon after the chief minister reportedly handed him over to the officials of crime branch following the discovery that he had allegedly promised two other party workers ministerial berths and other senior positions in the government in exchange for huge amounts of money.

“All I know is that my brother was called from his home to Srinagar by Nasir Aslam Wani and his dead body was returned to us the next day,” said Syed Mohammad Shafi, Yousuf’s brother. He says Yousuf was called at 10 in the morning of September 29 by Nasir Aslam Wani. He went to Srinagar to meet the minister, and when he reached back to his Pampore residence, he was called by Wani again asking him to immediately report back. When Yousuf’s son Syed Talib called him up during the day, he told him that he is at the minister’s residence.

“He (Yousuf) called me (Talib) again at 4:30 pm on September 29. When his (Yousuf’s) nephew called him (Yousuf) after some time, he (nephew) heard some heated arguments before the phone was switched off,” said Talib. Yousuf’s family kept trying till about midnight to reach him, Talib says, but his phone was switched off.

The next day, when the family went searching for him, the authorities initially said nothing about the whereabouts of Yousuf. “One of our relatives is a deputy director in crime branch,” said Syed Mohammad Hussain, Yousuf’s cousin. “But even he was kept in the dark about his whereabouts.”

When the family approached SSP Srinagar, Ashiq Bhukari, he told them to enquire about Yousuf from the crime branch office. “When we approached IG  Crime, he said he did not do anything with him (Yousuf) when he was brought to him. He told us that a doctor was called to examine him and he declared him fine,” said Shafi.

Yousuf was then taken to police control room. Talib told a Delhi based news channel that IG Crime told him, “whatever happened with Mohammad Yousuf happened at the CM residence and not in the office of IG crime.” Talib also said that an eye witness Salam Reshi told him that his father was vomiting blood when he came out of the CM’s residence.

The family took photographs of Yousuf’s dead body after the police handed it over to them. The pictures show bruises on his face. “There were injury marks on his cheek and also on his neck,” said Syed Adil, Yousuf’s nephew.

Yousuf was accused by his two party colleagues (YousufBhat of Ganderbal and Abdul Salam Reshi of Kokernag) of having taken Rs 1.18 crore from them for ensuring them a berth in the legislative council and the council of ministers.

The government in a statement said that the CM had called Mohammad Yousuf to his home on September 29 to inquire into the issue. The statement said Yousuf was later handed over to Crime Branch for an investigation and died the following day of “Cardio Respiratory Arrest” and that “no external injuries” were found on his body.

Principal Secretary Home, BR Sharma, told a press conference on Monday that the deceased along with two others was called to Chief Minister’s camp office to inquire into the allegations, leveled by Bhat and Reshi against Yousuf, of having taken Rs 1.18 crores from them for extending them “some undue favours.”

“Yousuf had complained of some abdominal pain and he was given the medical treatment and his ECG had come normal.  But Yousuf was kept under medical observation,” Sharma said.

Flanked by Director General of Police, Kuldeep Khoda, and IG Crime Branch, Raja Aijaz Ali in the press conference, Sharma said that Yousuf had again complained of abdominal pain on morning of September 30 and he was recommended to undergo ultra sound by the doctors at police hospital. “However his blood pressure dropped at 9:30 am and he was declared dead at 9:45 am on September 30,” he said.

Yousuf’s brother and son, however, question if Yusuf was unwell or suffered heart attack as the government claimed, why was he brought to a police control room? “Why wasn’t he rushed to SMHS or SKIMS instead?”

When the family went to Batamallo police station the authorities refused to register an FIR. “The munshi asked us to file an application. When we asked them to register a FIR, we were told that they needed to get direct orders from higher ups,” said Hussain. “After we gave the information, it was up to them to register the FIR.” Shafi, Yousuf’s brother, questions the delay in registering the FIR. “Why did they register the FIR after a delay of 3 days?”

Omar Abdullah maintained that no one had “touched” Yousuf at his residence. “I believe that no one touched him during the custody,” he told reporters in Delhi on October 6. About the claims of Yousuf’s family that the deceased had no history of heart ailment, the CM said, “there have been numerous cases where people with no history have suffered massive heart attacks.”

Yousuf’s brother says the family does not trust the report by doctors in police hospital. “It’s the police hospital, how can we trust their doctors? We were not allowed inside. Dead body was handled over to us after the postmortem,” said Shafi.  The main opposition party, PDP rejected the post-mortem report and demand resignation of the CM to allow fair probe into the “mysterious” death. The party also staged a small demonstration, amid heavy security presence, demanding action against the “killers” of the NC worker.

Omar Abdullah has so far stuck to his guns. “I have full faith that the truth will come out. I see no reason why I should resign either as Home Minister or Chief Minister,” he said.  His main ally in the government, the Congress party is defending the beleaguered CM. “We have full faith on Omar and Congress is at the back of CM,” said Taj Mohiu-Din, senior Congress leader and minister in the coalition government.

But Yousuf’s family is adamant. “We don’t trust the judicial probe. There should be a CBI probe into the killing,” Yousuf’s son Talib told a Delhi based TV news channel. “We don’t want politics over this killing. A person has been killed in a high security residence.

The killers should be revealed.”  “The government is giving contradictory statements in press. Sometimes they say it’s about party funds and sometimes they say he was involved in corruption,” said Shafi, brother of the deceased. “Why was IG crime called for a party affair in CM’s residence?”  “If he was involved in corruption or misappropriation of funds, why wasn’t a case registered against him earlier?” he asks.

What hurts the family the most now is that not even a single NC worker, leave alone the party leadership, turned up at their residence for condolence. “Not even a single NC worker called us after his death,” Talib said.

Yousuf was no ordinary man. According to the family he had direct access to the CM and Farooq Abdullah, president of NC and a federal minister. “He would often talk to Omar and Farooq Abdullah over phone and even talk to them till late in the night,” Shafi claimed.  The family also claims Yousuf was privy to all the party secrets. “He would often go to Omar’s residence. And whenever I would call him on phone, he would say he was with Omar,” Talib said.  

“He (Yousuf) would call himself –ministaronka minister (ministers’ minister),” says Yousuf’s cousin, Hussain.  “He was never after portfolios, although he was offered many times,” claims Hussain. His son, Talib also claimed Yousuf knew all the family secrets of Abdullah family. “He was associated with NC for the past 40 years. He was very close to them.”

Many a time Yousuf had to pay the price for being an NC worker. His family says the second blast in Islamabad district in the early 90s took place in his residence, in which he narrowly survived. He was also kidnapped by militants in 1991 and later released after 15 days. But he continued to work for NC.  “He was close to Abdullah family. He would sit in their kitchen,” said Hussain. “At the time of elections Omar Abdullah would depute him to several constituencies to access the ground level situation. He would do anything for the party. He was not an ordinary NC worker.”

Hussain says he met one of the eye witnesses Salaam Reshi in the crime branch on September 30. Reshi was present at CM’s residence along with Yousuf and another NC worker. “He (Salaam Reshi) told me that they were called by NasirAslamWani and then taken to CM’s residence,” said Hussain.  “Reshi told me that Mohammad Yousuf of Ganderbal in the meeting at CM’s residence said that he gave Mohammad YousufRs 84 Lakh for a ministerial berth promised by Farooq Abdullah.”  

Reshi told Hussain that Omar Abdullah refused to talk to him in isolation. “Reshi told me that Yousuf then told the CM that he had given all the money to Farooq Abdullah,” said Hussain. Reshi further told Yousuf’s cousin that heated arguments followed. “The security guards of CM said that he (Yousuf) is doing a drama,” Salaam Reshi said according to Hussain.

Salaam Reshi, who was present at the CM residence on September 29, said in a TV interview “the only thing Syed Yousuf said was until DrFarooq returns, he cannot give the money.”

“And DrFarooq told him (Yousuf) to keep ‘one for the big job’ and ‘50 for the small job’. Yousuf told him, it’s a big job so I gave DrFarooq 85 and 15 were remaining,” Reshi said.  When the reporter of the channel asked Salaam to explain what was a “big job” and what was a small job, Salam Reshi replied: “Small job’ means an MLC, a ‘Big job’ means a Minister – an MLC Minister.”

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