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J&K Fake Encounter: Army Court Martials Captain but Does That Provide Closure?

Life term is recommended for personnel gunning down labourers in Amshipora but kin discontent over partial justice.

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On 17 July 2020, a fierce gunfight erupted in the village of Amshipora in Shopian in South Kashmir. The 62 battalion of Rashtriya Rifles (RR), a counter-insurgency unit of the Indian Army which was presiding over the operation said the encounter was launched following the receipt of information about the presence of militants.

As they approached the house where the militants were allegedly holed up, gunfire rang out from the militants’ side prompting the forces to retaliate, the Army said.

Three militants were killed subsequently, Army Brigadier Ajay Katoch said during a press conference the following day.

“The dead bodies of the terrorists along with arms and ammunition and IED material handed over to JK police,” he said, adding that the Amshipora encounter was likely to bring down further militant movement in the region.

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Anatomy of a Fake 'Encounter'

More than two years after the incident, an Army court is now seeking a life sentence for Captain Bhoopendra Singh alias Major Bashir Khan and two other civilians who stand accused of fabricating the entire sequence of events leading to the encounter.

The three civilians from Rajouri were shot dead in cold blood that day and branded as terrorists, a police investigation later found out.

The Army’s latest recommendation constitutes a rare admission by the security forces in Kashmir that its personnel has breached protection under Armed Forces Special Powers Act(AFSPA), a contentious law that grants sweeping impunity to the Armed Forces in Kashmir.
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While the news has come as a surprise to many, the awarding of the punishment has yet to actualise as it is subject to confirmation from the higher-ups in the Army.

The three labourers Imtiyaz Ahmad (20), Abrar Ahmad (25), and Mohammad Ibrar (15) had come to Shopian, trekking across the treacherous forests of Pir Panjal mountains, a day before the ghastly episode took place.

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Speaking to The Quint, the father of Abrar Ahmad said that while the family is happy that justice has been served, they are dismayed over the meagre compensation. “I heard this from a friend but don't know with certainty whether the punishment had been awarded or not,” Haji Mohammad Yousuf said.

“My daughter-in-law is pining away at home in absence of her husband; my grandson has turned five years old. We were given Rs 5 lakh as compensation. But all that money got exhausted in legally pursuing this case.” 

Yousuf lamented that in comparison to them, the victims of militant violence in Dangri village of Rajouri were awarded Rs 10 lakh each along with a government job. “This is a very partisan approach. Three of our sons were snatched away from us and with them our sources of income,” he added.

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A 400-page long J&K police charge sheet into the incident nearly calls into question every claim that the Army had initially made. It also describes the event as a “pre-planned murder.”

'A Pre-Planned Murder'

The charge sheet said that there was no prior intelligence on the receipt of which the forces started the operation and that Singh and two other civilians were acting alone.

In the charge sheet, the J&K Police absolves itself by stating that the Army started the gunfight well before they or the Central Reserve Paramilitary Forces (CPRF) could have joined.

It said that Captain Singh and the two civilians left the Army camp at Reshnagri in Shopian for Chowgam on 17 July in a private car bearing registration number DL8CU0649. There, they got the three labourers into the car and drove off to Amshipora where they were shot dead in a make-believe gun-battle scene.

Following the protocol wherein slain militants are accorded discreet burials at faraway locations, the slain men were buried 125 kms away in Baramulla.

At the same time, their families in Rajouri had filed a complaint with the police that their kin had been missing for many days. The missing person's report for the three youths was lodged on 9 August 2020.

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The family was in the dark regarding the fate of their kin until they came across pictures of their disfigured bodies on social media.

The killings led to a political uproar, echoing the old memories of Machil (2010) and Pathribal (2000) incidents where forces were accused of perpetrating extrajudicial killings.
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“We have noted social media inputs linked to the operation at Shopian on 18 Jul 2020,” the Army said after the uproar. “The three terrorists killed during the operation have not been identified and the bodies were buried based on established protocols. The Army is investigating the matter.”

When DNA analysis of the bodies was conducted, it was confirmed that they were indeed the three missing labourers from Rajouri. The bodies were exhumed in October 2020 and returned to their families.

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Dogged by the mounting public anger, the Army launched a Court of Inquiry of its own which found that powers conferred under AFSPA had been misused and there was “prima facie evidence” against the three accused. The Army also said it will start disciplinary proceedings against the accused.

The police charge sheet accuses Captain Bhoopendra Singh of not informing his seniors until the last moment. It also says that no civilian witnesses were taken into confidence before the operation was launched.

The document also maintains that weapons recovered from the men’s bodies were planted on them. The police also accuse them of plotting to kill the three civilians to claim the reward money. The Army, however, has denied that they have a system of cash rewards.
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Co-Accused Turns Into an Approver

Bilal Lone, one of the two civilians who have been made co-accused later, turned the approver in the case and became a key witness for the police. Lone hails from Arabal Nikas village in the Pulwama district.

The other accused civilian Tabish Nazir who is from Chowgam village in Shopian also has confessed to hatching a conspiracy along with Captain Singh. Both of them were arrested on 28 September 2020.

The police charge sheet, however, is silent about the origin of the weapons the Army said were found in the possession of the three slain labourers.

As per the Army report to the police, two pistols with two magazines, four empty pistol cartridges, 15 live cartridges and 15 empty cartridges of the AK Series weapon, and other objectionable items were recovered from the encounter site.

This report was filed by one Major Kush, an adjutant at 62 RR unit based in Kathuhallen village in Shopian.

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As per the Army report to the police, two pistols with two magazines, four empty pistol cartridges, 15 live cartridges and 15 empty cartridges of the AK Series weapon, and other objectionable items were recovered from the encounter site.

This report was filed by one Major Kush, an adjutant at 62 RR unit based in Kathuhallen village in Shopian.

The charge sheet also says that investigators had interrogated Special Police Officer Fayaz Ahmad Rather who is co-accused Tabish’s relative. It mentions that both Tabish and Captain Singh had called Fayaz and pressured him to arrange weapons which he had refused to do.

At his home in Tarkasi village in Rajouri, Yousuf, Abrar’s father is restless with anger. “I suffered a lot in trying to get the killers to face justice,” he said. “I was called twice to the army tribunal court in Rangreth in Srinagar where the lawyer representing Bhoopendra (Singh) asked me insensitive questions. I deserved full justice and we are not there yet.”

(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.inArticle 14CaravanFirstpostThe Times of India, and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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