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Srinagar: Hours after the special investigations team (SIT) of the J&K Police shared preliminary findings of the probe into the controversial Hyderpora shootout on Tuesday, December 28, the families of the three local men killed rejected the “contradictory and incoherent” police findings.
The police investigation into the encounter has also run into rough weather with Kashmir-based political parties terming the inquiry as a “coverup” while renewing their demand for a judicial probe.
“It doesn’t even slightly give any objective picture of this shocking incident,” the Gupkar Alliance, an amalgam of five regional parties headed by National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah, said in a statement, referring to the SIT’s findings.
Seeking a judicial probe, the statement said the police claim is “only a repetition of the old story” which “seemed to be…concocted.”
However, the SIT on Wednesday evening threatened to take criminal action against political leaders for “speculative statements” on the shootout which, it said, can lead to “provocation, rumour, fear and alarm” among people which is “against the rule of law and may attract appropriate penal provisions as envisaged under law”, the SIT said in a statement.
On November 14 evening, a suspected Pakistani militant identified by J&K Police as Bilal Bhai alias Maaz was killed along with three persons – Altaf Ahmad Bhat, owner of a building in Srinagar’s Hyderpora locality where the shootout took place, his tenant Mudasir Gul who ran a call centre in a room on the building’s first floor and Aamir Magray who worked at the centre.
Two days later, amid intense public anger, the J&K Police formed the SIT headed by DIG Sujith K. Singh, to probe the shootout. Following the Supreme Court guidelines, the J&K administration also ordered a magisterial inquiry which, according to the inspector general of police (Kashmir) Vijay Kumar, has submitted its report to J&K’s home department which will be submitted to the court.
Sequence of events
Addressing a press conference in Srinagar, the SIT chief said a joint team of the Army’s 2 Rashtriya Rifles, Srinagar unit of J&K Police’s elite Special Operations Group (SOG) and paramilitary troopers cordoned the building in Hyderpora locality at around 5 pm on November 14 following “information about the presence of FT (foreign terrorist) and local terrorist residing on the first floor”.
The SIT has based its findings on the statements of around two dozen witnesses – some of them protected, forensic reports, analysis of call records, CCTV footage, postmortem reports and other unspecified material, said the DIG Sujith, adding that the inquiry team was open to reviewing its findings.
After the cordon was tightened, the DIG said the building was searched twice, once by a police party led by a local SHO at around 5:29 pm and then by a joint team of the Army and SOG, but without success. The DIG played CCTV footage which suggested that Magray, a resident of Ramban who used to do odd jobs in Srinagar for a living, according to his family, tried leaving the building soon after the first search operation had begun.
“Magray was asked to show his mobile phone but he told the search party that he had left it behind in his room. We allowed him to leave because we had no photo ID on him and a local trader claimed that he (Magray) has been working at the building for some time,” the DIG said, adding that Bhat and Gul were repeatedly questioned about the presence of militants in the building but that they kept denying it.
During searches, the SIT chief said, security forces found two rooms of Bhat and Gul locked. On inquiry, it turned out that Magray was in possession of the keys. “Magray was at a nearby hospital and he was asked to return after which the building was searched again. By then we had info on him including his picture,” the DIG said.
“The three of them went into the building on their own. They were pretending as if no terrorist was hiding inside. They didn’t ask for bulletproof vests or anything,” the DIG said, playing the purported CCTV footage which showed Magray carrying a torch in his hand at around 6:25 pm after apparently leaving Gul’s room, where he used to stay.
At 6:36 pm, the purported CCTV footage shows a person running out of the frame. “This is the foreign terrorist. After taking (Bhat as) human shield, he fired at security forces while exiting and was killed some 85 feet away from the building,” the DIG said, adding that there was a bullet entry wound on the back of his head.
During the operation, the police found two bodies near the entrance of the building; Magray was lying near the gate of the building while the body of Bhat was found near the staircase. Gul’s body was recovered from the attic with the help of a camera-mounted dog. The DIG said both Magray and Gul were seen with the foreign militant. “We have CCTV footage which shows Dr Gul in a car in the company of the foreign terrorist,” he said, without mentioning the date of the footage.
“We didn’t fire a single shot inside the building. An empty cartridge was recovered from the attic which belonged to the pistol recovered from the foreign terrorist, suggesting that Gul was killed by him,” the DIG claimed, citing forensic reports.
He claimed to possess video evidence showing the foreign militant and Magray entering the building on November 14 evening, hours after a policeman was injured in a militant attack in downtown Srinagar.
“A policeman had seen him (foreign militant) closely when he carried out the attack and identified him before the magistrate after the Hyderpora encounter. A SIM recovered from the foreign terrorist also showed that he was in Jamalta and Hyderpora on the day of the attack,” he said.
Claims and counterclaims
At the beginning of the press conference, the DIG said a cordon was laid around the building following information about the presence of two militants.
However, when asked why locals were put in the line of danger by asking them to search the building, the DIG said: “We didn’t know there were militants in the building. Had we known why would we question the building owner and traders? If the owner had told us, then we would not have sent them inside the building.”
“As per protocol, if there are suspicious elements in a building and the owner declares their presence, then we will not put him in danger. However, if the owner tries to conceal the facts, then he has to show the way. Gul offered to open his room and returned, and also offered to open Bhat’s room,” the DIG added.
Bhat’s family, however, rejected the police claims.
Speaking with The Wire, Abdul Majid Bhat, elder brother of Altaf, claimed that there were torture marks on his body. “There was a blunt injury on the back of his head, his eye and mouth were swollen and his legs were bruised? How did he suffer those injuries if he was killed in firing,” Majid said, rejecting the SIT’s claims.
“First the police said Bhat was an associate of militants. Then they said he was killed in cross-firing. Now they are saying he was taken as a human shield. The SIT probe is hogwash. We demand a judicial inquiry which we hope will get to the truth of the matter,” Majid said.
After killing Gul, the DIG said, the foreign militant and Magray took Bhat as human shield who “took the first bullets” when the exchange of fire took place at the entrance of the building.
“There was half-eaten food in the room where the terrorist was hiding. It seems the foreign terrorist got orders that Gul might have tipped security forces and to get rid of him. He was shot while leaving the room.”
About Magray, the DIG said he had completed a degree in Islamic studies from a prominent seminary in north Kashmir’s Bandipora. He sought to raise incoherent questions about the alleged ‘misbehaviour’ of Magray while he was enrolled at the seminary.
“He was absconding since 2018 after completing his degree. Lately, he had been talking about finding a secure residential place in Bandipora which has seen a spike in infiltration. We have got some vital clues and more details will be shared,” the DIG said.
Asked why Magray didn’t escape when he was asked to return to the building, despite knowing that searches were being carried out by security forces, the DIG couldn’t provide a satisfactory answer. “It was because the person on whose assurance we allowed him to go and who is a close associate of Gul knew him well and our calculation that he would return to the building on being asked to, turned out to be right,” he said.
Rejecting the official probe, Humaira, the widow of Gul, said that she had no expectations from the SIT. “The truth was killed with the murder of my husband and the other two people. Why would a doctor stake his career, his little daughter and ageing parents for nothing? The police are speaking lies,” she said, asking the police to show them the CCTV footage which shows Gul in the company of the suspected foreign militant.
Meanwhile, the J&K Apni Party president Syed Altaf Bukhari also rejected the SIT claims. “Who is the police to give clean chit in Hyderpora incident? We reject the probe,” he said.
The Sajjad Lone-led Peoples Conference (PC) termed the SIT findings “a fig leaf to legitimise violence by the state”.
“We don’t even have a modicum of belief that the government will actually have the moral courage to own a wrong and apologise for it”, a party spokesperson said.