Five years have passed since eight under trials, alleged to be members of a terror organisation, SIMI, were killed in an encounter after they allegedly escaped the high security ISO certified Bhopal Central Jail. The eight victims were Mohammad Salik, Zakir Hussain Sadiq, Amzad Khan, Mehboob Guddu, Mohammad Aqeel Khilji, Mujeeb Shaikh, Mohammad Khalid Ahmed and Abdul Majid.
Many questions were naturally raised especially with respect to the breach of such a high security prison which is under continuous CCTV surveillance and the many aspects of the build up to the encounter that did not make any sense.
Was it truly possible for eight grown men to escape such a high security prison, scale its walls and go to a nearby village? Or was it just a concocted story to justify extra-judicial killings which were carried out at the behest of political masters? These questions remain unanswered as the cops involved in the killings were given a clean chit by a one-man commission of retired High Court Judge Justice SK Pande, appointed by the Madhya Pradesh government.
Clean chit to the cops
Opposition alleged foul play and so did the families of the victims, as two videos had surfaced hours after the encounter raising doubts over the story told by the police. The Commission also claimed that the victims had escaped after tying up one guard and slitting the throat of another. It was further alleged that they had then opened the lock of the cell with a key and scaled the outer jail wall using a ladder made of bedsheets and wooden pieces. Further, it was claimed that the undertrials were asked to surrender but instead they started firing at the police and hence it was necessary for the police to retaliate and fire at them when they were spotted at Manikhedi Kot Pathar, a village nearby.
Then Chief Minister, Chivraj Singh Chauhan had lashed out at those questioning the encounters and referring to the under trial victims as “terrorists” and “enemies of humanity’’. He had called for speedy trials. “How long can you keep them under trial? Some people even get chicken biryani in jail,’’ he had said and spoke about appeasement without naming any political party. Clearly, the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is lost upon this BJP leader.
The unanswered questions
There are many questions left unanswered in the Commission’s submissions that leave doubts on the veracity of the claims made by the police. The guard who was allegedly tied up by the fleeing victims, Chandan Kumar, is the prime witness in the case, yet the inquiry report does not clearly mention his statement and also fails to answer why he was untraceable for a few hours after the jailbreak.
Further, only four of the 42 CCTV cameras installed in the jail were functioning the night when they fled. Also, it is unclear who gave fresh clothes, food and weapons to them after they fled.
A video apparently shot by the local sarpanch shows a plainclothes cop ‘recovering’ a knife-machete from a corpse’s waistband, another brave one aiming at a figure lying on the ground and firing in cold blood while off-screen voices shower some abuse and even acknowledge that someone is shooting it all on video. We also hear a voice saying – “shoot him in the chest”.
TRIGGER WARNING: DISTURBING VIDEO
The video may be viewed here.
At one point, the police even claimed that cells were opened by the undertrials with keys made of tooth brush and wood. The locks of the cells are always out of reach of the prisoners. The latch is placed at least a good two feet away from the gate etched in a hole within the wall. Even if one were to have the original keys there is no way that a prisoner could open a lock on his own.
A documentary filmmaker, Rakesh Sharma had raised several questions looking at the videos and other materials reported in news media, over the story claimed by the police. This detailed analysis may be read here.
Far too many discrepancies about the course of events, about the modus operandi of the jail break, and the ‘weapons’ they were carrying emerged in the statements of the various state officials. Photographic and video evidence pointed to the staged nature of the encounter killing – down to the new clothes and shoes the undertrials were wearing, the suitcases lying strewn around the dead bodies, the gleaming knife a brave police officer recovered from the lifeless body. From the police version it appears that the eight spent their short-lived time after jailbreak, togging up in jeans and sports shoes, procuring dry fruits, suitcases and country made revolvers while giving no thought to really escaping the area.
Taking a tough stand against ‘trigger happy’ cops who carry out extra-judicial killings, the Supreme Court in 2011 in Prakash Kadam vs Ramprasad Vishwanath Gupta & Anr (2011) 6 SCC 189 had warned,
“We warn policemen that they will not be excused for committing murder in the name of `encounter’ on the pretext that they were carrying out the orders of their superior officers or politicians, however high. In the Nuremburg trials the Nazi war criminals took the plea that `orders are orders’, nevertheless they were hanged. If a policeman is given an illegal order by any superior to do a fake `encounter’, it is his duty to refuse to carry out such illegal order, otherwise he will be charged for murder, and if found guilty sentenced to death. The `encounter’ philosophy is a criminal philosophy, and all policemen must know this. Trigger happy policemen who think they can kill people in the name of `encounter’ and get away with it should know that the gallows await them.”
As per National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) Crimes in India 2020 report, three cases of encounter killings were registered in 2020 in which 2 cops were arrested, however, none were convicted that year.
In recent memory the most talked about encounters were that of gangster Vikas Dubey by UP Police in 2020 and of 4 rape suspects by Hyderabad Police in December 2019. In both cases, the cops were hailed for taking down criminals, which in fact were extra-judicial killings, in complete perversion of rule of law and a mockery of the criminal justice system.
As per records, Vikas Dubey is the 119th accused to have been killed in what police called cross-firing since the Yogi Adityanath government took charge in March 2017, reported Indian Express. Magisterial inquiries have been completed in 74 encounter cases where deaths occurred and the police have got a clean chit in all. In as many as 61 cases, closure reports filed by the police have been accepted by the court, reports IE.
Thus, even a flickering hope for justice in encounter cases is non-existent. The country has a long history of permitting trigger happy police officials to operate with impunity, and serving no justice to the victim’s families.