There have been reports before of how evidence has been manipulated to frame Muslims as operatives of SIMI, an organisation banned in 2001. A series of reports that appeared in The Indian Express in the month of October in 2012 (Report 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) raised some serious doubts about such arrests. Similar questions were also raised while documenting UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act) cases (some of these cases pertain to those killed in the October 31 encounter in Bhopal this year) in Madhya Pradesh by the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association (JTSA) in a November 2013 report.
That despite this, one is being asked to not question the Bhopal encounter killings was what a panel expressed shock at while releasing another fact-finding report in New Delhi on November 29, which raises further questions about the killings. The reports based on audio and video clips and on court documents have already raised several questions about the encounter. The report, prepared by researchers, civil society members, and journalists based on fact-finding conducted between 4th to 6th November, is divided into three parts and raises four important questions:
1. The murder of security-guard Rama Shankar Yadav: The report points following inconsistencies in the official story of the alleged murder by the eight prisoners killed in the encounter:
a. The silence of Chandan Ahirwal, another security guard who was allegedly held hostage by the prisoners, and who is the only eye-witness to the murder
b. Yadav’s family told the team that they were being threatened by media sources and hence could not speak.
c. The family also told the team that Yadav did not have a good relationship with his colleagues and seniors since he had sought a transfer to Bhopal Central prison after a heart surgery five years back. Moreover, the daughter of the deceased guard said that she was not satisfied with the official version of the story and told the team to ask questions as the family can’t.
2. The encounter site: The fact-finding team visited the encounter site and notes the following:
a. The place has neither been preserved nor cordoned off, making it vulnerable to tampering.
b. The markings on the area where the dead bodies were found suggest, the report says, are very close and do not seem to indicate that that those killed were firing. The team offers that the only possibilities are that those killed were either surrendering, prepared to die, or were brought to the place after being killed.
3. Jailbreak: Denied permission to visit the jail, the team interviewed an undertrial prisoner bailed one week before the alleged jailbreak and encounter. The prisoner was lodged in the B-wing of the prison, where the Terror Cell housing the eight encountered is located. The prisoner gave the following details about the prison:
a. The eight separate Terror Cells are located in two wards. Entrance to the ward as well as each cell is locked.
b. The wards are in front of the head-quarter office and are located in a courtyard manned by two guards. Three “jaagiyas” (wakers) are assigned to each ward to keep an eye on each ward at night.
c. A prisoner escaping the terror cells would have to scale a total of three boundary walls.
Based on these details, the bailed prisoner claimed that it would be impossible for a prisoner to escape without being noticed or apprehended.
4. Differences in eye-witness accounts: The report also finds inconsistencies in the statements given by what they claim are tutored and untutored witnesses to the encounter.
a. Mohan Singh Meena, Sarpanch, changed his statement about timing of the encounter in two separate interviews (1 and 2) given to the media.
b. His son, Suraj Singh Meena, also an eyewitness was not sure of the time of the encounter in an interview with the fact-finding team.
c. A third witness told the team that he was sure of the timing and that the encounter had already taken place at 10 am when the police took him to the spot
Speaking at the release, Manisha Sethi of JTSA questioned the narrative that those killed were terrorists. She explained that they were undertrials in cases (those against five of them are listed with the report) pertaining to sections of the UAPA which don’t have to do with violence. Regarding one case where Aqueel Khilji was convicted in 2006, she said that the evidence produced in that case pertained to recovery of banned literature and not violence.
Advocate Sarim Naved, based on his experience of meetings clients in jail, explained that security arrangements for those accused of terror cases are very stringent. He also said that the procedure established by the Supreme Court in a 2014 judgment was not followed after the Bhopal encounter.
Legal scholar Usha Ramanatha said that she finds it a “scary prospect” that encounters have come to only mean fake encounters. Citing the 2014 judgment, she said that it was “very difficult to get a court to acknowledge that these problems existed”. Talking about the Bhopal encounter, she said, “The only explanation that I have seen being given is that one security person was lying dead in the prison and therefore it’s alright to shoot all these people. This is just not about impunity any more. This is really about criminality of the state“. “So the problem that I find is not just that there is criminality. There is a way in which the state thinks that it doesn’t need to answer,” she added.
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