Will exhumation lead the way?

Investigations into Shopian rape and murder has been complicated by loss of critical evidence. Autopsy has been deemed inconclusive. The question now is whether the exhumation can compensate the lost evidence. Shah Abbas reports.

Graves of Asiya and Neelofer in Shopian  Photo: Bilal Bahadur
Graves of Asiya and Neelofer in Shopian Photo: Bilal Bahadur

Heads rolled this week after Justice Jan Commission submitted its interim report to the government understood to have ordered prosecution of police officers for negligence. The Commission has also taken note of lapses by doctors in conducting autopsies.

J&K Government first suspended four police officers including then Superintendent Police Shopian, Javed Iqbal and besides the SHO Shopian and Investigation Officer . The scientific officer of the forensic science laboratory was also suspended.

Later the government suspended two doctors, Dr Hilal Dalal and Dr Nighat Shaheen, who had conducted the two autopsies. Dr Nighat’s report had indicated rape of both women and her findings were substantiated by a forensic report. However, shortcomings in the autopsy meant the cause of death could not be forensically established.
So far the investigators have also not been unable to identify the culprits. With potential leads from crime spots lost by police negligence, investigators are facing dead ends. Leads, if any, are too weak.

However, the bodies of the victims could still hold some vital clues or evidence that can be retrieved by exhumation. But investigators are still undecided on whether they require an exhumation, and if at all it will serve any purpose.
Experts, say that while exhumation can provide clues even after a long period, the earlier it is done the better the results. More so in this case where the exhumation aims to retrieve genetic material of the culprits.

Justice Jan Commission says an exhumation is not needed for its investigation. A source in the commission told Kashmir Life that the commission has “limited jurisdiction to identify the culprits”.

For its job, the commission has expert medical opinions, said the source. “The commission called Dr Fareeda, head of forensic department, and had her opinion which is sufficient for it in every respect. It does need not to exhume the bodies,” the source said.

The commission, however, says that the Special Investigation Team (SIT) led by Superintendent Police Shahdin Malik can go for an exhumation, if required. On its part, the SIT too is not considering an autopsy soon.

“Yes the autopsies are not complete and comprehensive but we (the investigators) know how to move forward,” a SIT source told Kashmir Life.

He said the team so far did not feel any need for exhumation of the bodies. “If in future any such need occurs, not a single movement will be wasted in exhuming the bodies.”

Medical experts opine that while body decomposition makes the analysis in case of exhumation difficult, it can still provide many vital details. A delay, however, is not welcome.

“Even gang rape can be established from an exhumed body,” said a forensic expert wishing anonymity. “Usually, the spermatozoa might have been washed away but some of the semen dries inside the body and with utmost care and sophistication, they can be recovered to establish rape or gang rape.”

The DNA profiling can also be also done in the process. Minute analysis of bones can reveal microscopic changes in them, which can point out to certain possibilities.

“Minute fractures in bones and their type and direction occurring at particular places will add to the evidence,” said the expert.

However, doctors also point out that these investigations could be accomplished effectively from the clothes of the deceased, without going for an exhumation.

“Blood sample, semen, hair, wear and tear in clothes and many other clues can be taken from clothes even if they are quite old,” a doctor said.

The clothes of Aisya and Neelofar are in possession of the police, who seized it from the relatives of the deceased on the second day of burial.

Meanwhile SIT sources told Kashmir Life that it is going for a ‘brain mapping test’ of two witnesses who recorded their statements before the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) Shopian on June 17.

The witnesses told CJM that they saw a police truck (TATA 407) at Rambii-aar bridge on the evening of May 29 and heard shrieks emerging from the truck.

Following the lead, SIT chief Shahdin Malik seized eight trucks, each of Police Station Shopian, Police Post Hirpora, Police Station Keller, Police Post SOG Keller, Police Post Imam Sahib, Police Station Zainapora, District Police Lines Shopian, and SOG Gagran. A forensic team has examined the trucks.

The statement of witnesses, Rashid Pampori and Ghulam Mohi-ud-Din, is pointing towards possible involvement of policemen in the crime.

Mohammad Shafi Khan, the vice president and the spokesman of Majlis-e-Mashawrat Shopian, which spearheads agitation in the town, divulged crucial details of the witnesses statement. The two eyewitnesses, he said, in their statement told the CJM that when they reached close to the spot where the police vehicle was parked, “they saw seven armed men in uniform, with masked faces, four in front and three guarding the rear. The men harassed them to hurry to their homes, while the two women inside the vehicle raised cries for help.”

During the night intervening May 29 and May 30, when police teams were searching for the missing women, they did not enquire from the neighbouring people. Residents say police enquiries could have lead them to the witnesses.
At 2.30 am, police left the spot to return after two and a half hours.

“Police should have formed two parties, one for searching and another for enquiring about the women from the people residing nearby,” said Mohammad Maqbool, a local resident.

Police’s absence for the crucial part of the night has not gone well with residents or with the investigators.
SIT chief agrees that police team has proved itself very negligent from the beginning.

“There was no fun returning from the spot at 2.30 am. Police could have easily formed another party to take the charge,” Malik said.

There are many other allegations against the police.

There presence of a group of migratory shepherds with their flock near the spot that night has also come up many a time. Khan said he and a police officer had seen the shepherds that night while looking for the two women, but found them missing in the morning when he visited again along with SHO Shopian.

“Who else than men in uniform can dislodge and displace the nomads before the recovery of the bodies in the morning,” said Khan.

In its interim report, Justice Jan Commission has held police officials guilty of negligence and recommended their prosecution. Locals term the police negligence as “criminal and deliberate”.

Neelofar’s husband, Shakeel Ahanger, has now petitioned the Chief Judicial Magistrate Shopian to treat the suspended police officers as accused.

File Photo of Asiya and Neelofer.
File Photo of Asiya and Neelofer.

Dr Nighat Suspended

When the whole administration was going overboard in declaring the Shopian deaths as case of drowning, it was gynaecologist Dr Nighat Shaheen who indicated the women had been raped and killed. Her report, later substantiated by FSL, led to official acknowledgement of the crime. This week, Dr Nighat was suspended for alleged negligence in conducting the autopsy. Kashmir Life tracks the events.

Saturday, May 30, early afternoon, District Hospital Pulwama. Dr Nighat Shaheen has just finished a surgery and is now examining a patient. The Medical Superintendent calls her up and asks her to reach the Chief Medical Officer’s (CMO) chambers. Expecting a routine training session of the women health workers, Dr Nighat replies that she was busy.

She is summoned again, this time with written orders through a senior official.

Coming out of the hospital, she finds CMO’s vehicle waiting for her. His deputy and the district health officer (DHO) are waiting for her near the front door. The officers usher her into the vehicle. “Sir, she is with us. We are just leaving,” one of the officers taking on the phone says.

A surprised Dr Nighat gets in. “Something has happened in Shopian and you are going to do a gynaecological examination,” she is told finally.

The vehicle speeds, only to halt at the district hospital Shopian. The premises are full of people, shouting slogans against police, government, and the deputy commissioner. Dr Nighat is shocked by the sight of swirling mob. She finds no policemen around.

People surround his vehicle and ask if she was the doctor they are waiting for. The officials accompanying her announce the doctors have been specially sent by the director and people give them way.

The hospital does not look like one, at least at that moment. It is a building with no window panes, no hospital employee in sight, at least not in their uniform.

Before Dr Nighat was called in to conduct the gynaecological examination, a team led by Dr Bilal had conducted an autopsy which did not indicate rape or murder. People, however, suspected foul play and had demanded a fresh autopsy. The administration had agreed and a new team that included Dr Nighat was called in from Pulwama.

In a secluded corner outside the hospital, the Deputy Commissioner welcomes the doctor – beta (daughter), get in, see them (the bodies).

The team asks for a larger space and so the bodies are shifted to the operation theatre. The theatre is littered with freshly broken glass. Hundreds of people are gazing and peeping in through the broken windows. Well before the examination could start, a greying man, weeping and wailing, comes with a Quran in his hands, pressing the doctor to swear to be truthful.

The doctor asks for gloves and slides. For a few minutes, she is almost begging for it. An employee of Shopian hospital appears with two sets of gloves and two slides. (Normally three are used in such cases.) In a state of nervousness, one of the slides slips out of her hands, falls on ground but remains safe.

Dr Nighat starts the examination and asks her colleagues to be witness.

She examines private parts of the two bodies, while the two doctors take notes of her dictation. She remarks about violence marks. She says the vagina, in both cases, were full of secretions. She takes the swabs and prepares slides. Her job is over. She had been told to do a gynaecological examination only. She was not supposed to do the autopsy to ascertain the cause of death, nor was she competent to do so.

But she could not ignore the three-inch long cut on Asiya’s head. There was a similar cut on Asiya’s knees, perhaps inflicted by the same weapon. There were major injuries on her limbs too. She recorded all of it. The slides were later sent to the Forensic Science Laboratory Srinagar.

Dr Nighat comes out, in tears. People surround her and ask about her findings. She replies – Insaaf Insha Allah Zaroor Milega (God willing, justice would be delivered). Within a few minutes, she leaves the hospital.
Back home, she receives a call from a senior officer asking her repeatedly if she was sure of what she had reported. She says she had reported what she knew as an expert. When the officer insists that the first team of doctors had termed it as a case of drowning, she looses her cool. “Let you prove it,” she retorts and stops attending any more calls. Till the next morning, her phone had recorded 400 missed calls.

In coming days, as controversy around the incident grows. With the administration seen in a ‘cover up’ mode, a sought after Dr Nighat keeps distance from the media.

Later, she deposes before the Justice (Retd.) Jan Commission along with other doctors. The commission wants her opinion over the cause of death, to which she says she lacked expertise. She also says that assessing the cause was not her brief as well.

Finally, Justice Jan orders all the mikes to be put off and no records be made. Then the doctor says she believed Asiya died of massive blood loss from her wounds in head, knee, limbs and private parts. As for Nilofer, she says it was cardiac arrest. A convinced Justice Jan pats her for her capability and honesty.

On Monday, June 25, on her way to Pulwama hospital Dr Nighat receives a phone call informing her of her suspension. She asks the driver to stop, disembarks, and returns home.


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