Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Killing red sander 'smugglers' was summary execution // Telangana cops in a soup after Viqaruddin, four others die in 'encounter' // Two encounters and a democracy

Killing red sander 'smugglers' was summary execution
The "encounter-killing" of 20 labourers in Seshachalam forests near Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh on Tuesday by a state-level task-force for their alleged role in red-sandalwood smuggling is one of the most intense extra-judicial killings the country has witnessed in recent years. The action killed 20 unarmed people in about an hour. This is a ferocity that is reported only from war fronts. Media reports said the smugglers, or rather their hired workers who were cutting and transporting sandalwood trees, attacked police with sickles, axes and stones although none of them mentioned hand-to-hand combat.

Reportedly, the workers, who numbered about 150, hurled stones and sickles at the task force men. Even so, the excessive reaction in the end appeared like summary executions. Were the task-force men so ill-trained that they couldn’t find other ways to contain a mob-attack? The Andhra Pradesh government is yet to come out with a status report and explain the need for such a brutal response and the level of casualties. After all, it was only red-sander (shorter for red-sandalwood) smuggling and not a border-skirmish with heavily armed militants or an uncontrollable riot that the task-force was sent to handle. And this is not the first time this has happened.

It was a widely reported fact that Andhra Pradesh was fed up of red-sander smuggling and the number of labourers, allegedly most of the from Tamil Nadu, involved. State police men had been killed in earlier encounters. The state DGPhas reportedly said that about 2000 labourers, mostly from Tamil Nadu, are under custody. He also said that often the police had to use open grounds to present them before a magistrate because they entered in such large numbers. Each time, about 200-400 people were arrested in one go. Moreover, the wood is quite precious because it fetches a lot of money in the international market and recently the state earned about Rs 1000 crore from an auction of sander seized from the smugglers. 

So was this encounter a desperate action to instill fear in the labourers employed by the smugglers? Available evidence does suggest deliberate intent. According to this Indian Express report, seven in a heap of nine bodies, have been shot either in the face or in the back of the head. How is it possible in an armed melee, that too one which took place in the woods, that the task force members were able to take aim at the victims’ faces and the backs of their heads? If it was indeed in self defence as they claim, where are the injuries of the task force members? Reportedly, only two of them were injured.
Do two injuries warrant a firing that killed 20 people?

The Ishrat Jahan and Sohrabuddin encounter cases had raised the conscience of the country about extra-judicial killings and earned a bad name for Gujarat. But the fact of the matter is that most parts of India are notorious for unjustified killing of people by police and security forces. A 2013 report said 555 encounter cases were registered in four years, with the highest number coming from Uttar Pradesh.

While some argue that this is a result of a non-functioning criminal judicial system, which forces the police to take the law into their own hands to deliver justice as they see fit, others say that it is a demonstration of the highhandedness of the state. There have been cases in which alleged criminals have been killed to mollify public anger or to weaken insurgency movements. Anyway, every encounter killing, fake or otherwise, is a blot on the country’s criminal justice system and a huge violation of human rights. If presented to the justice system, most of the victims of these encounter killings would have escaped death and some of them, even jail.

The National Human Rights Commission and the Tamil Nadu Government, where the incident has begun swelling into an inter-state issue, have taken cognisance of the encounter. Now that the deaths have already occurred all that one can expect is a judicial investigation. The Andhra Pradesh government will be happy if the Tamil workers are scared out of their forest jaunts. But this is unlikely because it is poverty and utter helplessness that finally drive them to work for the smugglers. If the Tamil Nadu government is serious about protecting its people, they should discourage the villagers by alternative employment and social assistance.

In 2014, the Supreme Court had issued a 16-point guideline to be followed “as the standard procedure for thorough, effective and independent investigation” which includes the recording of the tip-off, filing of FIR and investigation by an independent CID and magisterial involvement. However, the history of delivering justice on encounter killings has been rather dismal. For instance, in the 555 cases recorded during four years till 2013, only 144 had been resolved.

So, in the end, it’s the combination of scant regard for human rights, the failure of our criminal justice system and a guaranteed impunity or possibly the lure of gallantry awards, that breed encounter killings. They are not mere encounters, but extra judicial killings in which Indian citizens are summarily executed even before being legally charged with a crime. The Seshachalam episodes shows that despite the NHRC and SC oversight, our governments are getting more and more intolerant, autocratic and rights-violative.

Telangana cops in a soup after Viqaruddin, four others die in 'encounter'

The killing of Viqaruddin Ahmed and five others on the Warangal-Nalgonda district border of Telanganaon Tuesday has given rise to too many questions. The holes in the police story are too gaping to be covered up, no matter what the government would say to defend the encounter. With grave criminal charges against them, Viqaruddin and his gangsters were certainly no saints but the police’s embarrassing account of the encounter makes them look better. It takes only common sense, as Rights activists point out, to finds the weaknesses in the narrative. Muslim United Forum and Civil Liberties Monitoring Committee too have asserted that the police story of the encounter doesn’t hold water. Here are the six reasons why the police story is feeble and goes awry.

1. The police said that Viqaruddin had the vehicle stopped, got down, attended a nature’s call, returned and then tried to snatch the weapon from a policeman. How can he snatch the weapon when his hands were cuffed? The picture released by the police clearly shows that Viqaruddin’s right hand was cuffed to the seat? Which hand did he use to open fire on them? He was shot at point blank after his hand was tied to the hand rest.

2. How come the four others also tried to snatch the weapons when their hands too were cuffed? If one person was allowed out to attend nature’s call, all the other four were inside the bus. How could they snatch arms from the police while each one of them was guarded by two policemen?

3. There were 17 policemen on duty in three vehicles guarding the prisoners while they were being taken to the court in Hyderabad. How could the handcuffed prisoners "overpower" the armed guards?

4. Even if they all ganged up and hatched a conspiracy to kill the policemen and flee, why would they do it inside the mini-bus that was carrying them?

5. One of the slain prisoners, Haneef, is a doctor. He used to practice Unani and Ayurveda. There is no known record of his being acquainted with firearms. The only case against him is giving shelter to Viqaruddin. Therefore, how do the police justify him opening fire at the police and in turn getting killed.

N Venugopal, editor of Veekshanam, a leftist political magazine, who raised the above questions too said that Viqaruddin was shown as the main accused in the Mecca Masjid blast case in 2007. However, all the 70 accused persons, including him, in the case were let off and a compensation was paid for falsely implicating them, after Swami Aseemananda of Hindu Vahini, who was arrested in Pune, confessed to having planted the bombs in the mosque. Viqaruddin, eventually, was enraged and chose the same day of the blasts to take revenge.

Senior advocate in the high court of Hyderabad and leader of Civil Liberties Monitoring Committee leader Bojja Tarakam and general secretary of the committee Lateef Khan demanded a judicial probe by a sitting high court judge into the encounter, release of the 135 Muslim youths, who migrated to Hyderabad from different parts of the country and also Myanmar, who were detained "illegally", and also the resignation of Chief Minister KCR, if he could not ensure that his assurances are fulfilled.

The committee also raised a pointer at the media in general and vernacular media in particular for branding Muslim youths as terrorists and also commencing trial on sensitive issues which had legal ramifications only to "create a public discourse in favour of the State". Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehaadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) also described the encounter as a "murder in cold blood" by the police and demanded a judicial probe in to the incident.

Two encounters and a democracy 
by Avinash Pandey 
The world’s largest democracy witnessed its police force killing 25 of its citizens in two encounters in Andhra Pradesh. “Encounters”, for the uninitiated, are a euphemism for killing unarmed civilians in staged gun battles. The police version of both the alleged encounters is such that it could be laughed-off had they not been about the deaths of civilians.

The police version of the first encounter is that newly formed Red-sanders Anti-Smuggling Task Force spotted footprints of the “smugglers” and came across around 100 of them felling trees in the Seshachalam Forest at the foot of the Tirumala Hills. Members of the Task Force challenged them to surrender, but the woodcutters responded by pelting stones. The Task Force in turn responded to the raining stones by firing randomly at the woodcutters, which led to death of 20 of them; the rest ran away. “We fired random shots in self-defence”, a taskforce member told the national daily The Hindu on condition of anonymity.

Yes, you have read it right. A “random firing” in response to stone pelting has resulted in the death of 20 woodcutters. One wonders what could have been the toll had the Force targeted the woodcutters in self-defense. Let us forget how disproportionate it is to use bullets for stones, even if the stones were “raining” down. The alleged encounter took place in a jungle after all and trees could have given ample protection till the Task Force was able to gather itself. But then, Indian law enforcers are used to responding to stones with bullets, for instance in Kashmir in 2010, where 112 people were killed. This included many teenagers and an 11-year-old boy. An uncanny question about this encounter is why the Task Force did not arrest a single person from amongst the remaining 80 or so smugglers. So, not even “dead or alive”, the motto seems to have been “dead or nothing” or “take no prisoners”.

If one finds this one strange, wait till you catch up on the details of the second encounter. This one took place in a jail van, where 17 security force members were taking 5 undertrials from Warangal Jail to a Hyderabad court 150 km away. Yes, you read this right too. This encounter happened inside a jail van with all of the undertrials killed, while unarmed and handcuffed to their seats. The police claims, as per a news channel NDTV that Vikaruddin Ahmed, one of the undertrials, asked to be released in order for him to answer nature’s call. Upon his return he tried to snatch a weapon. The police opened fire when other undertrials allegedly tried to snatch weapons too and this led to all of them getting killed!

How could Vikaruddin Ahmed attempt to snatch a weapon from the security personnel, as undertrials are never let-off alone, not even to use the toilet? As standard operating procedure, security personnel always escort undertrials. Furthermore, even if he did attempt to snatch weaponry, how come a 17-member security force failed to overpower him without firing? Were not remaining four, as per their own claims, still handcuffed and unarmed? Finally, while it is impossible to believe this uncanny and highly improbable story, why exactly did the police need to kill the other four undertrials?

The answers to all these questions are rather simple. The victims in the first case were poor tribal youth caught not only in between lucrative offers of easy money but also interstate (and interlingua) rivalries between the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. That they were not real smugglers but merely coolies for the smuggling mafia that enjoys state patronage on both sides of the border is something immaterial for the police, which could shoot them with impunity but will never dare to touch real smugglers. What should be really bothersome, however, is the way almost all of the Indian media carried the story, parroting the police version, including calling those dead smugglers. Most media houses did not bat an eyelid to ask the obvious: why fire on people pelting stones and how come the Force could not arrest a single person.

Victims of the second encounter came from another persecuted minority of India. They were accused of being members of a local terror outfit Tehreek-Ghalba-e-Islam and were suspected of various attacks on the police in Hyderabad, as well as plotting the murder of Narendra Modi, now Prime Minister of India. They were in jail since 2010. In this case too, the media did the same. A few of reports went to the extent of claiming that the gunning down had foiled a terror plot against Mr. Modi. Only later did the skeletons come tumbling out of the closet. The pictures showing the “terrorists” slain while still being handcuffed to their seats make it nearly impossible for the media to keep parroting the police version.

Security forces eliminating people in custody or with impunity in “encounters” is one of the worst kept secrets of India. The Supreme Court, in its order in Criminal Appeal No.1255 OF 1999, has called such killings nothing less than “state sponsored terrorism”. The Court had done so despite recognising the fact that policemen are indeed required to “take to take drastic action against criminals to protect life and property of the people and to protect themselves against attack.” And yet, it set stringent guidelines to be followed as standard operating procedure in cases of encounters. The guidelines begin from the point of a tip off that can lead to such encounters to video-graphing the post-mortem of individuals that happen to die in the process of police work.

What, however, is a Supreme Court order worth that carries no weight for the police. Let us forget the second encounter, as it is simply too frivolous to be true, and check the facts of the first one. Did the Task Force record the tip-off in any diary? Did it file the mandatory FIR following the encounter and forward it to the court under Section 157 of the Code without any delay? Were any of the guidelines fulfilled so that an independent inquiry could reveal facts about the deaths? One of the guidelines requires an investigation by the Crime Investigation Department or a different police station by an officer at least one rank above the involved officer does not make much sense as officers from whatever stations but same police force investigating an encounter is like asking the accused to investigate himself.

The efficacy of a magisterial inquiry, another guideline set by the Court order, is exposed by the one that was conducted in the custodial killing of Thangjam Manorama, a Manipuri village girl, in 2004. The report of the judicial inquiry commission, led by C. Upendra Singh, retired District and Sessions Judge, Manipur, was submitted in December the same year and was never made public until November 2014. The report indicted personnel of 17 Assam Rifles for “brutal and merciless torture” of Ms. Manorama. Yet this has not resulted in the prosecution of any of the accused and the compensation to the family of the victim. Going by the evidence available, the fate of magisterial enquiries, even those that have fulfilled their mandate, cannot be drastically different in other such cases.

This begets another question: are Indian citizens cursed to live with the danger of getting killed by someone obligated to protect their person and property? They may fear more if they come from vulnerable sections of the society. But should they fear less even if they do not? Till someone takes the responsibility of reforming the criminal justice system of the country all Indians are in danger. A cruel, violent, and unjust system harbouring criminals in uniform will hurt one and all. The Executive is not interested in any such reform as this system serves its interests well. Will the Judiciary take onus to enforce its orders? And, will the civil society of India understand that having good laws and court orders is not real protection for the marginalized or even the mainstream population in such a criminal justice system?

About AHRC:The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.