Probing Shujaat’s Assassination

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Nothing much is clear as the police have launched a massive investigation into the assassination of journalist Syed Shujaat Bukhari, reports Saima Bhat

The last click: After putting in almost 30 years in and around the Press Enclave, this was the last sight of Shujaat, slain in his SUV

After a week of brutal assassination of Shujaat Bukhari, the Rising Kashmir founder editor, SP Pani, IGP Kashmir said they have got “some leads” that will help them crack the case soon. But so far the attackers are still at large as the CCTV camera images have just shown the track they had en route.

In the meticulously planned “40 to 45 seconds” operation, the police investigations have revealed the attackers started firing bullets at the editor at around 07.13 pm. As per editor’s phone time, he had received his last call at 7.12 pm his friend Raja Muneeb, whom he had planned to meet. But as soon as he dropped the call, three persons riding on a motorcycle raised their guns and fired bullets into his car. Around 16 bullets had hit him.

Shujaat, police said, had five PSOs, of whom three had gone to celebrate Eid. When he was attacked, there was a driver and a PSO with him.

“They emptied around two magazines of bullets to kill the editor and his two PSOs. Two types of weapons were used in the crime. One is AK47 and another was INSAS,” says a highly placed source. “It was a brutal killing.”

But another officer looks at it as ‘an act of terror’ rather than ‘an act of militancy.’ “Militancy assassinations are well planned, but this is not sophisticated. It was more of brutal. It looks venomous.”

To crack the case, a SIT has been formed under DIG central, VK Birdi that is investigating the case with the help of SSP Srinagar, SP (SOG), SP East, SDPO Kothi Bagh and an inspector. Other police branches are contributing to the investigation.

The preliminary investigation has revealed that attackers have made it sure that their targets should not survive and they had done a proper reconnaissance before the implementation of their plan.

“They were present at the crime scene around an hour earlier. They have deliberately taken the routes where they could avoid the CCTV cameras,” one official said. “It is not a militant attack but a proper assassination plan. They had even carried the weapons in a sack/bag.” After leaving the editor dead, the assassins had run away from the Residency Road to the downtown area.

A senior police officer said around 200 cops scanned almost 1000 pieces of footage to discover the clip that shows three young men fleeing on a bike. They say they are crossing the Barbarshah Bridge.

The police investigation, so far, claims two of the attackers could be locals, who were aware of the city lanes. But another officer says, “So far we cannot say anything because we are still doing our investigations. It is an initial stage. We are yet to connect the dots, with time things will become clear.” He added: “Attackers have stayed in Srinagar so we have to look out all nearer places of the crime as well.”

Initially, the police were looking at the possibility of the third assassin as Pakistani militant who had escaped from a Srinagar hospital. The person riding pillion on the motorcycle, whose face is covered by the third attacker resembled him, a senior officer said. This speculation is still not ruled out.

After the assassination, many locals and media person opened their cameras and recorded the incident which probably was first of its kind in last more than a decade. One such video later showed a youth helping in getting bodies out of the car, had stolen the pistol of the critically injured PSO, who later died in the hospital.

The youth, identified as Zubair Qadri, after stealing the pistol and two mobile phones, one of the dead editor and another of PSO, drove through the inner lane of the Colony on his bike. He was arrested next day. But another video suggests he did not leave alone. He had two more friends waiting for him.

Flabked by DIG and SSP Srinagar, Kashmir Police Chief S P Pani addressing a press conference in Srinagar

Qadri has claimed to be a drug addict but the primary investigation strongly doubts. “He was consciously there. Why he fled from the scene and then dumped his blood-stained shirt and changed his appearance,” says one of the officers. “In one more statement, he has said he is a thief, which is not correct. He belongs to a good family.”

After the assassination, suspect Qadri along with his two more friends fled from the spot on bikes. “One of his friends is from Ganderbal and has been called up for the investigation but his second friend, from Bandipora, was at large. He was arrested after five days, on June 20.”

Presently in police custody, suspect Qadri has an MBA from Kashmir University. “He is with us from a few days now but we did not find any drug withdrawal symptoms.”

Police are also investigating why Qadri kept his phone switch off and left it home that day. “In last one month, he has been to Arwani area in south Kashmir twice, which is a hotbed of militancy. But he insists he was there to get his stock of drugs.”

“We recently got to know that one among these friends was arrested three years back by SOG as he was working as an OGW,” one officer said.

After the killing of Bukhari, it has come in public domain that he knew he was threatened.

It all started in March when Bukhari got a threat through a telegram. “But he was not aware of it. I informed him and meanwhile, he was being trolled on a social networking site, Twitter. But I never thought it will reach to a dead end, where he will be killed,” said one of his friends and a police officer.

But the investigation has also revealed that there was a threat and it was already communicated to the editor by IGP Kashmir himself in May 2018. “He was suggested to stay home and not to come office. But he (Shujaat) had informed the police that he was out of the country and they will talk once he is back. He was in Istanbul at that time. In the meantime he came back to Delhi and then went to Pakistan,” an informed sleuth said.

In Pakistan, Bukhari told Ershad Mahmud, a commentator and a peace activist: “I have been warned by official sources that the order to hit me has been issued. Please talk to Pir saheb (Syed Salahuddin) about it.” After the killing of Bukhari, Mahmud wrote on his Facebook wall that, “With some difficulty, I managed to meet Salahuddin and sought his help. I got an assurance that there was nothing like that and it was all propaganda.” And he had conveyed same to Bukhari.

Once home, Bukhari was confident that he won’t be hit after Salahuddin’s assurance. He then left for another tour in Lisbon, from where he returned in the first week of June. “He returned on June 2, evening and next day he came in public life with attending an Iftaar party hosted by his politician brother at SKICC. Just eleven days later he was killed. He ignored our warning,” says an officer.

But the online campaign against him started after a conference held in Dubai in July 2017. The conference was attended by many people, including separatists from across the LoC and there was the participation of some political workers from Kashmir.

The conference raised controversies, with separatist groups based in Pakistan issuing statements. This was followed by a virtual campaign on social media by various groups and individuals against the participants, with Bukhari topping the list. Mehmud was also a participant of the same conference.

Back home Bukhari had to face criticism. One of Bukhari’s friend, a senior journalist, Iftikhar Geelani, who also participated in the conference, has written a piece wherein he has written, “The leader of the hard-line faction of Hurriyat, former MLA, GN Sumji, said his organisation would probe all those who attended the conference. When we presented ourselves for the probe, he denied having issued any such statement and blamed the newspapers for distorting facts. When we asked him to issue a denial, he switched off his phone.”

He continues writing, “This campaign, which had stopped after a while last year, resurfaced a month ago, leaving Shujaat scared. Minutes before his death, he called me from Srinagar and advised me to take care as the campaign against us from fake social media accounts was getting shriller.”

But the police sources informed Kashmir Life that one of the blogs that started this campaign is handled overseas. “If we go by the content, it is generated locally. It has his intimate information but the content is uploaded outside the country. We are tracing the IP addresses of this blog, hate messages and threats he received. This is a conspiracy but this time the focus is on the people who executed this plan. Rest of the things will become clear with time.” But he adds, “This blog could either be misleading or preventing him to be a greater martyr.”

After the assassination of Bukhari, many questions have been raised on the surveillance system as well. The lone CCTV camera present in this part of the city centre was on focus towards the Residency road, MA Road and Pratab Park since student protests became a norm in the city centre and it missed the recent crime.

“None of the CCTV’s are focused on the main road. All shopkeepers have focused their cameras on their shop shutters. We have got two footages that could be of some help. One of them has been sent to forensics in Chandigarh.”

Other than footages, the investigation teams are monitoring all the calls of that day. “Everything is in the air so far. Nothing is concrete.” But the teams are investigating all calls of Shujaat Bukhari since he returned from his last foreign tour, in Lisbon.

“We are working on three modules: LeT, Jaish and other militant groups and all suspects/OGWs are on our track,” says an intelligence sleuth. “We cannot rule out the angle of rivalry. Other angles we are looking into like he had many friends but he had many enemies as well.”

But one of the officers working in the investigation team says he is ‘not personally satisfied’. “We have intelligence inputs but that is hypothetical till it comes up with legal scrutiny. There is nothing concrete so far.” In getting the execution part solved, he says they are looking into technical things. “There are many people working who have their own expertise.” They are working with sketch artists as well. “But nobody has come up so far who could tell us they have seen the shooters.”

“I accept there is information hotchpotch but it is not a dead end. We are exploring every input,” he adds.

 

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