Srinagar: Family members of three labourers from Rajouri in Jammu who went missing in the Shopian district of Kashmir last month have alleged, on the basis of photographs, that the three unidentified militants the army said it killed in a gunfight there on July 18, were in fact their innocent relatives.
The allegations, if true, will evoke painful memories of the Pathribal incident of March 2000 in which five civilians from Anantnag were killed by the security forces and passed off as ‘terrorists’, and, more recently the Machil encounter of 2010 in which three civilians were killed.
The family of the Rajouri youths told The Wire that they had lodged a missing report with the police in Rajouri on Thursday. “Imtiyaz Ahmad was working as a labourer in Shopian for around one month. He asked my son Abrar and my sister-in-law’s son, also called Abrar, to come there in search of work. They left for Shopian on July 16. Since then, we don’t know anything about their whereabouts. I rang up him on July 18 but his phone was switched off,” said Muhammad Yosouf, father of Abrar Ahmad (25).
He claimed that he could identify his sister-in-law’s son Abrar from photographs shown to him by somebody purportedly of those killed in Amshipora, Shopian on July 18. “I could recognise [him] from those photographs,” he claimed.
He said he is seeking permission from the Rajouri district administration to go to Shopian on Tuesday.
He said all the three young men had gone to Shopian to earn their livelihood and had no link with militancy. “We are poor people. We don’t have even a distant connection to militancy,” he said.
Lal Hussain, another local from Rajouri, said that Imtiyaz Ahmad had informed him over the phone on July 17 evening that the two boys had also reached Shopian.
“We first thought that they may have been quarantined due to COVID-19. We didn’t know where they are. Now we have lodged a missing report with police,” he claimed.
Guftar Ahmad Chaudhary, a political and social activist from Rajouri, said the families have apprehensions that these boys may have been killed in the Shopian encounter.
“This matter should be investigated at the earliest,” he said.
Zafar Choudhary, a political analyst and journalist from Jammu, tweeted that he had spoken to the family who had identified the three youths “beyond any doubt”:
The three boys killed in Amshipora were in my distant relation. I have just spoken to family, they’ve identified them beyond any doubt. They don’t remember the exact date of speaking to them last but say the news of death came on 22nd day of losing contact with them. pic.twitter.com/ymvCrj7TRM
— Zafar Choudhary (@ZafarChoudhary_) August 10, 2020
In a brief statement, the army said on Monday evening, “We have noted social media inputs linked to the operation at Shopian on 18 Jul 2020. The three terrorists killed during the operation have not been identified and the bodies were buried based on established protocols. Army is investigating the matter.”
Encounter on Army inputs
On July 18, the Jammu and Kashmir police, in a handout, said, that the encounter was executed on inputs from the 62 battalion of the Rashtriya Rifles.
“On a specific input by 62RR about [the] presence of terrorists in village Amshipora area of district Shopian, an operation was launched by them in the said area,” a police spokesman said.
He also claimed that the police and paramilitary CRPF later joined.
“During search, terrorists fired upon army personnel and encounter started. Later on, police and CRPF also joined. During encounter three unidentified terrorists were killed. Dead bodies of all the killed three terrorists were retrieved from the site of encounter. The identification and affiliation of the killed terrorists is being ascertained,” the spokesman said.
The spokesman said that “incriminating materials, including arms and ammunition were recovered from the site of encounter”.
“All the recovered materials have been taken into case records for further investigation and to probe their complicity in other terror crimes,” he said, adding that dead bodies of the killed men have been sent to Baramulla for their last rites after conducting medico-legal formalities including collection of their DNA.
“In case any family claims the killed terrorists to be their kith or kin, they can come forward for their identification and participation in last rites at Baramulla”.
He further said that case FIR No. 42/2020 under relevant sections of law has been registered at Police Station Hirpora and investigation has been initiated into the matter.
When contacted, superintendent of police, Rajouri, Chandan Kohli said the families have lodged a missing report.
“We have diarized the report,” he said.
A senior police official posted in south Kashmir said the families have not approached them.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) termed the incident of the three labourers going missing a serious issue and said there was need for “a time-bound judicial probe”.
“There are unverified reports that the missing labourers have been killed in a fake encounter in Shopian on July 18,” the party said. “This is shocking and must be probed by a sitting High Court judge in a time-bound manner. In the past also unfortunate incidents of civilians being killed in fake encounters for rewards and promotions have been reported in Kashmir. The 2010 unrest was the creation of the Machil fake encounter. Those who are proved to be involved in such heinous crimes be brought to justice.”
In a tweet from PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti’s Twitter handle, her daughter, Iltija Mufti said the reports of the “staged encounter” in Shopian showed the armed forces were operating “with impunity”:
Shocked to hear about reports of 3 missing labourers reportedly killed in a staged encounter at Shopian.Armed forces have a free hand to operate with impunity.Explains why bodies are allowed to decompose at unknown locations.Probes into recent encounters must be ordered https://t.co/7uoNlVIuuN
— Mehbooba Mufti (@MehboobaMufti) August 10, 2020
In the Pathribal case, though the Central Bureau of Investigation established that the five men killed by the army and police were all civilians who had been abducted from in and around Anantnag just before being taken to the encounter site and murdered, the Ministry of Defence withheld sanction to prosecute for over a decade. Finally, in the face of a Supreme Court ultimatum, the army convened its own court of inquiry and exonerated its soldiers.