Image of LeT Commander Naveed and the SMHS Hospital in Srinagar used for representational purposes. 
Opinion

Did LeT Leader Escape With Inside Help from Srinagar Central Jail?

Fleeing of under-trial militants and prisoners from jails, courts and hospitals has not been uncommon in Kashmir ever since the outbreak of the armed insurgency in 1988.

Yet the drama and sensation created by the escape of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba terrorist Mohammad Naveed of Multan, Pakistan, in broad daylight, while killing two armed guards of the Jammu and Kashmir (who were escorting him) at Srinagar’s crowded SMHS Hospital on Tuesday, 6 February, is arguably unprecedented.

Yes, it has the potential of morale boosting for the terrorists, particularly those of LeT who had been rendered leaderless. But we have launched a manhunt across the Valley and we are sure to get him dead or alive, depending upon the circumstances, in the (very) near future.
Munir Khan, Additional Director of Police & Kashmir’s IGP 

The J&K Police under Mr Khan’s leadership and planning, in coordination with security forces, have neutralised over 200 militants in a large number of operations and encounters in the last nine months.

Even as the Pakistan-based Jihadist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad has been revived after a pause with some operations, including a suicide strike on a CRPF camp at Awantipora, and the indigenous guerrilla group Hizbul Mujahideen is reclaiming its base in certain areas, LeT had been reduced to a trickle after it lost ace commanders Abu Qasim and Abu Dujana in the last two years.

Also Read: Kashmir Militancy Continues Unabated as Note Ban Makes No Impact 

A ‘Terrorist-Friendly’ System?

Most of the senior police officers, including Mr Khan, admitted that there were chinks in the armour, and that they had failed to shift Naveed from Srinagar to Jammu “for a host of reasons within our own system”.

Some of them went to the extent of alleging that the existing system of holding the militants in jail and custody was ‘terrorist-friendly’ and nobody was being held accountable for helping the detainees escape or providing them ‘VIP treatment’.

A Senior Superintendent of Police who is not authorised to speak to the media told The Quint on condition of anonymity:

In certain matters we are pathetically helpless and we have no support of sister organs and institutions of the political establishment. We have written dozens of letters to our IGP. He, in turn, sent numerous communications to the Government to strengthen and rationalise the system of the custody, passage, treatment and prosecution of the under-trial terrorists. But nobody’s moved in the government.
A Senior Superintendent of Police 

Both, ADG Munir Khan and IGP Vijay Kumar, have serious apprehensions about Naveed’s appointment as LeT’s Kashmir chief and think that he could re-organise his diminishing group by spreading a wave of terror with some killings, again in South Kashmir – Mehbooba Mufti-led Peoples Democratic Party’s traditional stronghold until it formed the government with BJP in March 2015.

But we have a lot of faith in the courage and competence of the police and security forces. We have the best coordination. I am sure his days are numbered.
Mr Khan to The Quint

After the Hizbul Mujahideen icon Burhan Wani’s death in an encounter in July 2016, South Kashmir has been completely in the grip of militants like Saddam Paddar, Sameer Tiger, Riyaz Naikoo and Zeenatul Islam, even as a number of LeT’s and Hizbul Mujahideen’s top commanders have been killed in the last nine months.

Also Read: Why More Kashmiris Joined Militancy This Year

Naveed’s Master Plan

Mr Khan confirmed that he had indeed forwarded the complaints about the system being lax on terrorists to his higher- ups, but in vain. “There have been loopholes from day one. Before his second arrest, and ultimately execution in a murder case, even JKLF founder Maqbool Bhat had escaped from Srinagar Central Jail,” said a senior Police officer.

For Khan, the most surprising fact is a loaded pistol that Naveed got from someone either in the jail, or in the carriage or inside the hospital. Khan and his subordinate officers claimed that during thorough scanning of the CCTV footage, they noticed Naveed fleeing with a pistol in his hand.

Documents accessed by The Quint revealed that the decision to send Naveed for a ‘medical check up to SMHS Hospital’ was taken by a lady doctor posted at Srinagar Central Jail over a month ago following a court order.

His passage to the hospital was deferred for about a month for reasons not known to anybody. Sources insist that a section of the jail staff, including the lady doctor posted there since 2015, have been removed after Tuesday’s incident.

Five others, who were carried from Srinagar Central Jail to SMHS Hospital for medical check-ups included under-trial Seeratul Hassan of Malarata Srinagar, involved in the fatal lynching of Dy SP Mohammad Ayub Pandith, Public Safety Act detainee Abdul Ahad Rather of Tarzoo Sopore, Arif Sheikh of Parimpora Srinagar, who is reportedly a militant arrested for a murder, stone-pelter Bashir Ahmad Saleh of Baramulla and Mohammad Khaleel Najar of Goos, Safapora, involved in a murder case.

Who is Naveed?

Naveed (approximately 19-years-old) – who assumed more than six pseudonyms including Mohammad Naveed Jhaat, Hafiz Naveed Baloch, Chhota Kasab, Munna and Abu Hanzalla – had been arrested by J&K Police and security forces from his hideout at a hamlet bordering Kulgam and Shopian districts in South Kashmir on 19 June 2014.

Wanted in over a dozen acts of terrorism, including the killing of at least five police and security personnel, and civilians, he used to operate as LeT’s ‘Deputy Chief’ with Abdu Qasim.

Naveed identified himself as the son of one Mohammad Haneef Jhaat of Chak No 421/EB Boriwal, district Vehari, Multan of the Punjab province of Pakistan. According to the police and intelligence officials who were tracking him for over a year, Naveed had extraordinary organisational capacities, courage and expertise in striking his targets.

“He was calm and composed when we arrested him. He told us several times that he would one day escape from custody,” said Vijay Kumar, then Deputy Inspector General of Police, South Kashmir, who is currently IG and on deputation with Central Reserve Police Force in New Delhi.

Also Read: Terror, Militancy & Other Challenges Faced by Indian Govt in 2017

Inmates Running the Asylum?

A number of the police officers complained that different militant outfits had more control over Srinagar Central Jail and other jails in Valley than the state government. According to them, local officers posted as Jail Superintendents did not have the gumption to vex or anatagonise the prisoners.

A jail officer said to The Quint:

They are vulnerable to threats and attacks. When a junior jail official of Chadoura tried to stop the use of SIM cards and smartphones at Sub Jail Baramulla, militants attacked his house, torched his vehicles and forced him to apologise. That taught all of us a lesson.

He complained that the government had been deaf to suggestions of posting Kashmir’s officers in Jammu jails and vice versa.

“This is an open secret. Most of the detained militants are ripened inside Srinagar Central Jail. They have everything available here — SIM cards, smartphones, internet, WhatsApp, Facebook, LED TVs, literature for indoctrination. One of the prisoners is operating a welfare fund from inside the jail. There are frequency jammers and CCTV cameras which never function. There’s no proper record of visitors,” said a Police officer.

Jail Superintendent Hilal Ahmad pleaded that he was “in a meeting” and not available for comment.

Director General of Prisons SK Mishra maintained that he had deputed DIG rank officer to ascertain the facts. “If something adverse comes to our notice, we will take appropriate action,” he asserted. He said it was being investigated, to find out if someone inside the jail had played a role, and if reports of a pistol having been passed to Naveed were true. He said that Naveed had been referred to SMHS doctors under a court order.

During the investigation, The Quint learned that immediately after his arrest in 2014, Police had attempted to lodge Naveed and some other Pakistani prisoners and under-trials from Kashmir to Jammu jails. In fact, Naveed was lodged in a jail in Kathua district of Jammu. 

However, his counsel filed a habeas corpus petition and a judge of J&K High Court ordered that the LeT deputy chief must be lodged in Srinagar Central Jail to be available to a trial court.

In December 2017, authorities succeeded in shifting eight Pakistani prisoners from the Valley to Kot Bhalwal Jail of Jammu. However, Naveed’s counsel got the government’s efforts to shift him to Udhampur or Kathua stayed by a court.

Following these developments, not appropriately contested by the prosecution, the Principal Secretary of the Home Department, operating directly under the Chief Minister, issued “Government Order No: Home-PB-V/331 of 2017 Dated 27-01-2017”, which directed that the Pakistani national Naveed be “transferred from District Jail, Kathua to Central Jail, Srinagar with immediate effect”.

Another attempt of shifting Naveed to Udhampur was stayed by Principal District and Sessions Judge Srinagar.

Asked why the Government had quickly implemented the court orders and why the same had not been challenged through LPA, Principal Secretary Home, Raj Kumar Goyal said: “I can’t comment on it without going through the file. It’s not readily available with me”.

A Long History of Escapes

The history of such escapades is long. Jamiatul Mujahideen chief Maulvi Ghulam Rasool alias General Abdullah alias Mohammad Ramzan Sofi escaped once from Srinagar Central Jail during his detention from 1993 to 2000.

He was allegedly responsible for causing an IED blast and the killing of six civilians close to the then Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah’s residence on Gupkar Road in January 1997. Finally, he was able escape while at SMHS Hospital on 3 February 2000, and has been operating from Pakistan since then.

In recent times, Pakistani militant Wahid Noor Khan died in a mysterious blast inside his ambulance at Hygam while he was being carried from a Baramulla court to Srinagar Central Jail. Five Policemen escorting him were grievously injured.

Dreaded LeT commander Altaf Ahmad Malik alias Pinto Malik escaped from District and Sessions Court Pulwama on 4 September 2006. Along with another militant, Mudassar alias Hamza, Pinto Malik had allegedly kidnapped and killed IRCON engineer Sudheer Kumar Pundir, and his brother near Puzgam Awantipore in May 2004. Pinto was finally killed in an encounter with security forces at Vehil Nowgam, Shopian, on 14 April 2007.

(The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)

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