Genuine Encounter or Custodial Killing: What Really Happened to Md Amin Malik at Tral SOG Camp?

According to J&K police, Malik was an active militant who snatched a police rifle while being questioned and had to be shot. According to his family, he was a labourer who voluntarily presented himself to the police for questioning.

Srinagar: On the night of June 2, Zahoor Ahmad, a 30-year-old resident of Machama hamlet in south Kashmir’s Tral in Pulwama district, received a phone call from the village watchman who asked him to take his mother to Tral police station immediately.

The police station was where Ahmad’s brother, 38-year-old Mohammad Amin Malik, had been in custody for questioning since May 29.

When they arrived at the police station, Ahmad’s mother was escorted to a police vehicle and driven to a Special Operations Group (SOG) camp some meters away. There she was told that Malik had snatched a rifle out of the hands of a policeman and that she must ask her son to surrender.

Ahmad’s mother told him later that she had called to Malik while still seated in the police vehicle which was at a distance from the building where, according to the police, Malik had run and taken shelter. But she received no response.

She apparently told Ahmad: “I told them to let me get out [of the vehicle] and I would ask my son to surrender. But they did not let me. I did not know whether there was anyone on the other side of the building or not.”

Confused, Ahmad’s mother repeatedly called to Malik to surrender, but continued to receive no response. Eventually, she was sent home.

The next morning, June 3, Ahmad went to the police station to ask what had happened with his brother. The policemen on duty told him to go home because the search operation for Malik was still going on. “Your family will be informed when something develops,” the policemen told Ahmad.

As Ahmad spoke with the policemen, he received a phone call from a relative who informed him that Malik had been killed while in police custody and that his body had already been taken to the police control room in Srinagar.

Malik’s story: Police version

According to the Jammu and Kashmir police, Malik was an active militant and had been killed in an overnight encounter on the night of June 2/3 after he snatched a service rifle (AK-47) from a policeman and fired indiscriminately around the room.

“Mohammad Amin Malik, son of Abdul Ahad Malik of Nagbal Machhma, Tral, an active (militant) operative was neutralised in an overnight operation on 2/3 June, jointly conducted by Awantipora Police, 180 battalion CRPF and 42 RR of army at Police Component Complex, Tral,” a police spokesperson told the media soon after the alleged encounter had ended.

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The police spokesperson added that Malik had been arrested on May 30 and had possessed “incriminating materials viz. arms, ammunition and explosives including unlicensed 12 bore gun, live rounds, explosives, iron/steel balls, 9 feature phones and other warlike stores used in fabrication of IEDs”. He had been taken to the Tral police station where “a case FIR No. 48/2021 under relevant sections of law was registered”.

The police spokesperson said: “The operative (militant) was on police remand and on June 2, 2021, he was brought from the Police Station, Tral, to the Police Component, Tral, for further interrogation. During the interrogation (he) got hold of the service rifle (AK-47) of CT (constable) Amjad Khan and fired indiscriminately with the intention to kill the police personnel.”

Malik wounded Amjad Khan “critically”, the police statement said

The police spokesperson added: “He (Malik) then took total control of the interrogation room and engaged the police personnel by firing intermittently from the snatched weapon. Sensing grave danger to the lives of police personnel and that of the (militant) operative, his mother and the executive magistrate were brought on the site and sincere and repeated efforts were made to persuade him to throw down the weapon and surrender.”

Malik apparently not only refused to surrender, but continued to fire upon the police party. “One of the police personnel was hit with a bullet on the chest and survived because of the bulletproof jacket he was wearing,” the spokesperson said.

Eventually, said the spokesperson, after all efforts to persuade Malik to surrender had failed, he was engaged in a gunfight “following the rules and SoP of such engagement and was neutralised.”

Malik’s story: Family version

Malik’s family has an entirely different story about Malik’s arrival in police custody. On May 23, they told The Wire, their house had been cordoned off by a contingent of forces from the army, police and paramilitary. According to Ahmad, when the security forces personnel entered the house, they were “furious and started ransacking everything”. Malik meanwhile slipped away quietly and returned only when the forces had left the house.

“They turned everything upside down and asked for Malik,” said Ahmad. When they left, they told the family to bring Malik to the police station. Later, the police claimed they had recovered an unlicensed gun and some incriminating material including bleaching powder from Malik’s home.

“They recovered a decades-old, rusted hunting rifle (toppe bundook) from our house,” said Ahmad. “My father was a hunter. He used to hunt animals in the nearby forests. After his death, we preserved the rifle in his memory. It had broken clips and dismembered barrels.”

The bleaching powder the police had taken with them after the raid at Malik’s home had been used for fishing and weeding, Ahmad added.

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On the night of May 23, after the police and army had left the house, Malik returned. “He saw everything turned upside-down and the sight sent chills down his spine,” said Ahmad. “They (the forces) had let their sniffer dogs into our stored rations including rice, tea and other eatables, so we had to throw away our rations. A tin shed erected in the courtyard had also been demolished.”

The family told Malik that the police had ordered him to report to the police station. Malik was reluctant to do so. He knew that getting involved in police matters would never be easy. But his family, including his mother and wife, persuaded him to go since he had done nothing illegal.

“In fact he had doubts about how the police would react to the recovery of the old hunting gun,” said Ahmad. “But we told him that police would understand our emotions behind keeping this old rifle.”

The family also approached an intermediary to talk to the police. According to Ahmad, the deputy superintendent of police who had spoken with the intermediary had sworn upon his own two children that the police would keep Malik in custody for two or three days for questioning and then release him safe and sound.

On May 29, Ahmad and another person accompanied Malik to the Tral police station. The deputy superintendent of police apparently questioned Malik in isolation for some time and then handed him to the SOG.

On May 31, Ahmad went to the police station to meet his brother. Malik was fine. But the deputy superintendent of police asked Ahmad to tell his brother to hand over the arms he possessed or else he would be jailed.

When Ahmad told his brother what the deputy superintendent of police had said, Malik told him: “Am I a fool? If I had something like this do you think I would have come to the police station? I have nothing like this.”

On June 1, Malik’s wife and 70-year-old mother went to meet him at the police station. They later told Ahmad that when two policemen brought Malik to the visitors’ room, Malik had been limping. There was very little conversation between Malik, his mother and his wife.

“They told me when they returned home that Malik had been in pain. He told them his whole body was aching,” Ahmad said.

Worried, Ahmad went to the police station on June 2 to see Malik for himself. Although he was turned away at first, he was somehow allowed to meet his brother. The person Malik had become by June 2 was the opposite of what he had been on May 31, the day Ahmad had met him last. Malik now looked exhausted, lost and wrecked. As Ahmad approached him, Malik broke down and said that he had been tortured.

“He could not fold his hands; his wrists were swollen,” Ahmad told The Wire.

Malik apparently told Ahmad that a police officer had twisted his legs while he was seated in a chair and broken his knee. All Ahmad could do was try and console Malik by telling him he would soon be free.

After the encounter

According to Ahmad, the police had told an untruth in the story they had shared with the media about Malik’s arrest.

“It is a lie that Malik was arrested,” said Ahmad. “The fact is that we, his family, had taken him to the police station because they had told us he needed to be questioned. If Malik had plans to join the militancy, then he would not have handed himself over to the police.”

Malik’s family had also presented him to the police on May 29, whereas the police said Malik had been in their custody since May 30.

In 2002, Malik had joined the Hizb-ul- Mujahideen as a militant.  But in 2003, he had formally surrendered and since then had been working as a labourer. Another brother, Shabir Ahmad Malik, had also been a militant, serving with the Al Qaidaaffiliated Ansar Ghazwatul Hind (AGuH) militant outfit until he was killed in June 2019.

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Malik is survived by his wife and two sons, one 14 years old, the other seven.

“We do not know what happened inside the police camp but we are sure that our brother was a labourer and not a militant,” Ahmad said. He claims that Malik’s body was taken by the police and buried at an undisclosed location.

“We were not even taken for my brother’s last rites and we do not know where they have buried my brother,” he said.

The Wire adds from New Delhi:

Encounter raises unanswered questions

Based on what the police and family had said about the death of Mohammad Amin Malik, The Wire’s Delhi bureau asked a former central paramilitary force officer to offer his assessment of the official account.  “The story is unbelievable,” he said, requesting anonymity because of the government’s recent gag order on retired security and intelligence officials.

According to the officer, there are several holes in the claims made by the police.

“In the first place, if you had reasons to believe that the man is dangerous and given to violence (what else could you determine from the alleged seizure/recovery?), the law permits you to handcuff him or even put him under irons or fetters after obtaining due permission from the magistrate who granted the police remand,” the officer told The Wire.

He continued: “What was the necessity of someone standing so close to him that the accused could snatch his rifle? Why was Amjad Khan so careless with his rifle? We are made to believe that a dangerous terrorist took control of the interrogation room. How? This needs investigation.”

According to the officer, it would have been difficult for a lone man to take control of the interrogation room. “What happened to the interrogator?” the officer asked. “Usually more than one person is involved in an interrogation. And because they claim it (the arrest of Malik) was a joint operation of the SOG, CRPF and the RR, it follows that their officers must also have been present. If they were not present, why not? Usually, Intelligence Bureau officers are also present… Joint interrogation has been the standard practice since the last 33 years.”

The officer also suggested that the scene be recreated so that the sequence of events could be confirmed.

“From which place was he (Malik) firing? Obviously, he could not have closed the door. Had he closed [the door], how would he fire? This means the door was open. This also means that he would have to, at times, lean out of the door to fire, unless he was firing in one direction only,” said the officer.

He added: “Even if we accept that this so happened, the forces have got both hand grenades and under barrel grenade launcher rifle grenades. The simplest thing would have been to lob a grenade inside. In fact, in a room, even tear gas grenades or stun (flash and bang) grenades would have been very effective. Tral has been a hotbed [of militancy] and all such things have been routinely available there with all the forces.”

The officer also questioned the logic of the police claims.

“They would like the nation to believe that even as a terrorist had launched a murderous assault on a constable, they were still thinking in terms of getting him to surrender on the appeal of his mother? This shows that the operation, if at all conducted, was a most unprofessional one,” he said.

The Wire also asked a former Intelligence Bureau official with extensive field experience in the Valley if it is standard operating procedure for police constables to carry their weapon into interrogation when a suspect is not physically restrained with handcuffs. “It is true that many police personnel carrying AKs keep moving around while the suspect is being interrogated,” he said. “The problem is lack of gun discipline and over confidence. I have seen many times an AK hanging loosely from the shoulders of police personnel.”

But he added, “If [the sequence of events as narrated by the family] is correct, which seems so, it is a fake encounter. Perhaps, the poor fellow died during interrogation and the whole story is being made up.”

The Wire has asked the police to provide more details about the “critical” injuries sustained by constable Amjad, whose AK-47 was allegedly snatched, and the treatment he is undergoing, and will update this story when it receives a response.

Umar Mukhtar is a Srinagar-based journalist working with Kashmir Life. He tweets at @umarmukhtaar.