Uncovering a cover up?

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Women demonstrating against delayed justice in Shopian – Photo by: Bilal Bahadur

As the mystery about the gang rape and murder in Shopian slowly unfolds, the investigative lapses and interventions in the case are becoming strikingly apparent. The judicial commission brings some hope of justice, but rising to people’s expectations is still a big task for it, especially when the government’s role in the case carries a big question mark. SHAHNAWAZ KHAN and SHAH ABBAS report.

After lot of drama in the aftermath of Shopian crisis, some facts have now been established. One, that the teenager Asiya and her sister-in-law Neelofer were brutally gang-raped and murdered. Two that the administration, right from the beginning, went too far trying to pass off the heinous crime as a case of drowning, no matter that the bodies were found in ankle deep waters.

The one man Judicial Commission now stationed in Shopian has begun its investigations, and sources close to the commission say it has made major headways into the case.

“It (commission) is moving closer to the goal… The investigation seems to corroborate the people’s allegations and suspicions,” a source close to Justice Jan commission told Kashmir Life.

It is still a big challenge for the commission to identify the perpetrators, but, sources say, the commission finds possibilities of civilian criminals’ involvement a very remote. The suspicions therefore hover around various security agencies operating in the area.

Though tight lipped about most of its investigations, the commission cleared aspersions about the cause of death of the two women, despite an evasive forensic report.

The commission’s secretary, Mukhtar Ahmad told the media that the team of doctors who deposed before the commission opine the two had been murdered.

In the first two days of its working the commission had received nine affidavits, and recorded statements of seven doctors involved in the two autopsies. Despite resentment among some people including the relatives of victims, and the strikes in the town, the commission hopes to complete its investigation ahead of stipulated time.

However, the major problem the Commission’s investigation faces are the major lapses made by police in the initial stages. Police has made no efforts in preserving the crime scene – in this case the two spots where from the bodies were recovered. Nor did it make any inquiries, or efforts to find any witnesses or clues.

Sources say that Commission’s investigation officer, SP Dr Haseeb Mugal, who was brought from Kishtwar to assist the commission, has found the local police conduct shocking.

Much of the clues about any crime can be found in initial stages. Mugal is known for his expertise in solving complicated crime cases. He was instrumental in solving the infamous Tabinda Gani rape and murder case in Handwara in 2007. While Mugal had followed leads from the crime spot itself, police in Shopian didn’t bother to hunt for any clues, or take any samples or footmarks from the spot. In fact, people were given a free access to the spot killing any chances of gathering vital clues or leads.

Superintendent of Police Shopian Javed Iqbal (now transferred) instead earned people’s ire by claiming it to be case of drowning, and quelling dissent and protests with brute force. In subsequent days, when whole Kashmir was up in arms over the issue, Iqbal was sleeping over the case. No major inquiries were made, no major search for clues.
The commission is understood to have taken a strong note of Iqbal’s role. He deposed before the commission on Thursday and was questioned for hours together.

Commission’s investigation officer Mugal is on a lookout for slippers and head scarves of Asiya and Neelofar, which have not been retrieved so far. He has been scanning the whole area for these items or for any other clues.

According to the investigations so far, Asiya and Neelofar were last sighted near their orchard on the fateful evening of May 29 by one Dilshada, wife of Ghulam Qadir Shiekh. Dilshada’s house is adjacent to the family orchard of two women. From the windows of her room, Dilshada had seen the two going towards a spring in front of her house.

“I saw the two descending towards the spring. I don’t know if they had just arrived, or were returning, but I saw them going towards the spring.

It was still daylight,” Dilshada told Kashmir Life. As an unmindful Dilshada tended to her chores, oblivious of the fate awaiting them, she did not bother to see when the two ascended from the spring. Dilshada is among the first witnesses to have provided their statement to Justice Jan.

Neelofar’s husband Shakeel Ahmad Ahanger told Kashmir Life that they would often drink water from the spring while returning from the orchard. Mostly, the family would go to the orchard by a car. That evening, however, Aisya and Neelofar went by foot, Aisya visiting the orchard for the first time since the family bought this orchard. Orchards are loved possessions in a village. Apple produce from orchards constitute major part of the economy in Shopian.

With some thirty apple tress standing amid streaks of wild grass, there wasn’t much to do in their family orchard, except may be, sitting for a while and chatting under the trees.

Some 1600 steps from the spring they had to cross a bridge over the Rambi-aar, the shallow stream where their bodies would be found lying next morning. They had to take a secluded dirt track running along the Rambi-aar on one side, and orchards on the other. At the other end close to the bridge, the track is dotted by a couple of houses and some Gujjar tents.

This secluded patch is the centre of suspicion of the investigators. It is here, they suspect, the two were abducted. The manner of abductions, one which has left no traces, smells of a meticulous planning and absence of fear among abductors.

Police’s role at the hospital where the bodies were taken for autopsy makes them a centre of suspicion. It also makes their lapses in preserving the crime scene and laxities in investigations appear deliberate.

Kashmir Life has reliably learnt that police was trying its best to pass off the deaths as accidental – by drowning. Some of the doctors who deposed before the Justice Jan Commission have reportedly told the commission about the pulls and pressures they faced during the autopsy, and later too.

Despite the fact the bodies were almost dry, the doctors were told to certify these as drowning deaths. As the crowd outside the mortuary was getting impatient, doctors from the first team didn’t get enough time to examine the bodies either. They left the mortuary after some stones were thrown at its windows.

Police issued a statement to media soon after the first autopsy stating the two had died by drowning, and ruled out rape. For an altogether different reason the police withdrew the statement within hours. Director General Police (CID) A K Bhan said afterwards that the statement was withdrawn for having a “distasteful” word, and not for any factual inaccuracies.

Meanwhile people had talked to Dr Nighat from second autopsy team who they said confirmed rape and murder. People were no longer ready to take the police or government’s word on it. The second autopsy team had in fact indicated rape and murder in its report, and sent vaginal smear samples for forensic examination. Despite their observations, which were not made public for about a week, the chief minister Omar Abdullah addressed a press conference two days later ruling out rape and murder of two girls.

It is unclear if the local police officers headed by SP Javed Iqbal were exerting pressure on the doctors on their own, or were they directed to do so.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah not only endorsed the police version assertively, but also accused media of politicising the whole affair. This made him a suspect in his own right, and thus fairness of the judicial commission set up by him was also questioned.

“It is terrible. They wanted to put chillies in our eyes. They were telling us that that the two girls drowned. Anyone could tell it was impossible, but the police and government were hell bent on proving the two had drowned in ankle deep waters. It only tells the extreme government can go in befooling people,” said Shafiq Ahmad, a resident of Shopian.

In subsequent days, SP Iqbal was given a free hand in quelling dissent among the residents. Despite allegations of a cover up against him, he was retained while the Deputy Commissioner Shopian was transferred soon after the incident.

On June 10, SP Iqbal was transferred to Ramban and SP Shahid Mehraj brought in his place, apparently to set matters right. Iqbal had not made any progress in the investigation, while his continued presence was fueling anger among the residents.

While people complained that transfer was no punishment, the buzz in the police department is that Ramban is a prized posting.

“SP Shopian commands two police stations, while SP Ramban looks after five. Ramban overlooks the lifeline of Kashmir Valley. It is considered one of the prized postings in our department. Many people use money and influence to secure this posting,” a police officer told Kashmir Life on condition of anonymity.

“We were surprised by the posting, because we expected a punishment posting” he added.

In his testimony before the Justice Jan Commission, SP Iqbal has admitted that he was informed about the recovery of Neelofar’s body from a dry area of Rambi-aar by SHO Shopian at 5.30 am on May 30. Instead of proceeding to the spot to recover essential evidences, he continued with his morning exercise at his residence.

The SP also admitted that in spite of grievous injury in the vital part of head of Asiya and body of Neelofar being half naked with visible marks of violence, FIR was not lodged under 302, 375 RPC.

Much of the people’s suspicion, however, had grown from the circumstances the bodies were found in. The police handling of the case only reinforced it.

Neelofar’s body was found on the Rambi-aar bank close to a CRPF and SOG camp on the morning of May 30. The preceding night police, victims’ relatives, and local residents had been scanning the area up to 2:30 am. It was apparent that the body had been placed there after 2:30 am. The proximity of the CRPF and SOG camp created suspicion of their involvement in the crime or patronage to criminals. The spot falls within the night vigil range of the two camps.

Apart from lapses in the police investigation, the medical examination was also full of lapses. Two teams of doctors conducted separate autopsies, providing four reports in all. Each team gave a preliminary and a final report. In majority of crime investigations, first autopsy report is considered more accurate, but here in this case, it is the second autopsy report which made some serious efforts in establishing the cause and circumstances of death.

The Commission is understood to have grilled the team of doctors on their role. It has questioned their contradictory findings, but doctors from the first team have been given some benefit of doubt – one because of the mob presence, which had affected their working drastically, second the lack of required expertise in the first team, and the alleged police pressures. The first team had neither been able to examine the bodies for possibilities of rape, nor did it have the expertise to make such examination. The commission is also trying to find if their reports had been made under any external pressure.

While the second team, which included Dr Nighat Chiloo, not only was sure about the rape and murder of the two girls, it collected viscera and smears of the two for forensic examinations. Despite pressure it went ahead with its job professionally.

However, there were lapses afterwards too. The forensic report was delayed for mysterious reasons. Though the report established presence of multiple human spermatozoa in vaginal smears of two samples, it was evasive about the cause of death. The samples had been examined and completed by technicians at the FSL on June 1, but the report was retained at the FSL up to June 6.

Police registered an FIR for rape after the forensic report was received from the FSL. It was still not registering an FIR for murder. It was only after the commission on the basis of statements given by doctors to it announced that the deaths were inflicted by a sharp weapon, that police registered a case for murder too.

In coming days, the commission may be able to make some breakthroughs and identify the perpetrators through the leads it gets in its investigation. If the lack of clues or evidences hinders its prospects, it may consider an exhumation. After collecting more samples post exhumation, the identification of criminals can be done through DNA mapping, which however, is a long drawn process. Also it is helpful only when there are some identified suspects.

The commission has a huge task ahead of it, but more than that it has a bigger task of rising above people’s suspicion. The commission is set up by the government which itself is facing a credibility crisis on the issue.

“Whatever comes out of the investigations tomorrow, one thing is sure, both police and government have misled people from the beginning. This has put a question mark on everything. How can you trust a government probe tomorrow, or an autopsy in any other case?” said Muhammad Hussain, a school teacher in Srinagar. “People now have a right to suspect whatever government says. Everything, police, hospital, doctors, everything has become suspect now.”

In fact, many people are of the view that the facts came to fore only because of the unrest it triggered. “Thanks to the public uprising throughout the valley and Shopian in particular, the government was compelled to take the matter very seriously, otherwise there would have been no commission and the guilty would have been laughing all over,” said Mohammad Yousuf, a resident of Shopian.

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