A brigadier said there was intelligence about terrorists; his unit came under heavy fire; the bodies were handed over to police. A police investigation has revealed the victims were abducted; they were dead before the unit arrived on scene; and a captain tried to burn the evidence.
AUQIB JAVEED & IRFAN MEHRAJ
Srinagar: On 19 July 2020, a brigadier addressed a press conference at an army unit in Awantipora, 33 km from Srinagar, describing vividly an operation by his unit that led to the fatal shooting of three “hardcore terrorists”.
Five months later, a chargesheet filed by the Jammu & Kashmir police called the site of the operation, in Amshipora village of south Kashmir’s sensitive Shopian district, a “crime scene of murder”.
A sessions court in Shopian is now hearing a case against one civilian accused, and an army captain is facing a court martial.
Brigadier Ajay Katoch, Commander of 12 Sector Rashtriya Rifles (RR) stationed in Shopian, said at the press meet that in the wee hours of 18 July, “precisely at 02:00 hours”, the Army received “human intelligence inputs” about the presence of four to five unidentified militants in Amshipora.
Brigadier Katoch said that at 2.45 am, a team laying a cordon to flush out the militants came under “heavy fire”, and at 5.30 am, a search party sent into a small, newly constructed house was met with gunfire. The Army team lobbed grenades and, Katoch said, “retaliated”, causing three terrorists to be “neutralized”.
The chargesheet filed by the police, against an Army captain and others, contradicts almost every claim made at the press conference. It holds that there was no civilian intelligence—a captain of 62 RR undertook a solitary operation, a fact corroborated by four Army witnesses.
Soldiers who joined the encounter later heard a “few bursts of fire” as they were approaching on foot, according to the chargesheet. This means the first shots were fired and the alleged militants dead before the Army team arrived. No search unit was sent into the house.
Brigadier Katoch also said at the press meet that a police team prevented large numbers of gathered stone-pelters from disturbing the Army operation, and that two terrorists could have escaped.
The chargesheet makes no mention of stone-throwers or escapees. It says the captain, now an accused in the case, did not inform his seniors until the last moment, and no civilian witnesses were taken into confidence, the latter a direct violation of rules laid down under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958.
The captain and two co-accused, both civilians, were in touch for months before the encounter, according to police investigations. They made more than 300 calls to one another. The weapons recovered later from the men’s bodies were planted there by the accused, said the chargesheet, which is more than 400 pages.
Even Law Protecting Armed Forces Violated
All operations such as search, seizure or firing on an unlawful assembly under the AFSPA are to be expressly sanctioned. In this case, the police chargesheet says the Army captain was not acting in the exercise of such powers, but executed a “pre-planned murder’”.
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While rules laid down under AFSPA were violated, previous violations of the law by the armed forces did not lead to convictions of men in uniform. In the Pathribal fake encounter case of 2000, the Ganderbal fake encounter case of 2007 and the Machil fake encounter case of 2010, the accused were all armed forces personnel, and they were eventually spared.
In the Ganderbal case in which a civilian was killed in central Kashmir, the police had chargesheeted five armed forces personnel. The Army had questioned the J&K police's jurisdiction to investigate its men.
In the Pathribal case, the Army claimed there was no evidence against the accused, also soldiers. The case has not moved forward after the victims’ families approached the Supreme Court.
In the Machil case, a military court sentenced five soldiers to life in prison, but the punishment was suspended by a military tribunal three years later.
In March 2018, the J&K police sought the Centre’s sanction to prosecute 23 soldiers for their alleged involvement in the death of a 30-year-old college lecturer, who is said to have been beaten in Army custody in August 2016. No sanction was given.
The same year, the government informed the Rajya Sabha that it had received 50 requests for prosecution of security forces’ personnel from the Jammu and Kashmir government. It had denied sanction in 47 cases, while in three others, the matter was pending.
On Republic Day in 2021, Brigadier Katoch received a Yudh Seva Mdeal for distinguished service during operations or conflict from the President of India. The Army has offered no explanation for the version of events he presented at the press meet.
How The Amshipora Encounter Unravelled
The Amshipora encounter came under a cloud of suspicion when photographs of the three slain men went viral on social media in August 2020.
Three families from Rajouri district of Jammu division claimed that the slain youth were their kin. Their boys had gone to Shopian to work as labourers, and had no connections with militants, the families said.
A public outcry followed, and the Army ordered an inquiry. In September 2020, having completed its Court of Inquiry, the Army said it had found prima facie evidence against two soldiers who had “exceeded powers” vested in them under the AFSPA. Then, in December 2020, the Army said it had completed the Summary of Evidence in the inquiry and two soldiers would face court martial.
But police investigations pointed to a deeper conspiracy.
According to the chargesheet, a copy of which is with Article 14, on 18 July, 2020, Heerpora police station in Shopian received a complaint from Major Kush, adjutant of 62 RR (Dogra).
The police chargesheet said that based on their “own input” about the hiding of “unknown terrorists” in Amshipora, a “cordon-and-search” operation was launched on 17 July, during which three unidentified “hardcore terrorists” were killed and two pistols with two magazines and 4 empty pistol cartridges, 15 live cartridges and 15 empty cartridges of AK series weapons and other objectionable items had been recovered from the encounter site.
The police registered an FIR, and the investigation was assigned to the deputy superintendent of police, Shopian, who went there right away.
On 11 January 2021, the police said that Captain Bhoopendra Singh of 62 RR conspired with two civilians to fabricate an encounter and claim a reward of Rs 20 lakh.
The Press Trust of India (PTI) quoted J&K police as saying that Capt Singh and two civilians also destroyed evidence of the crime. The police reportedly said this was a “criminal conspiracy hatched between them with motive to grab prize money of Rs 20 lakh”. The Indian Army, however, denied there is a system of a cash reward for its security personnel.
A civilian, Bilal Ahmed Lone, was named in the chargesheet and subsequently turned approver. He is now a key witness for the J&K police.
The police booked Capt Singh and the two other accused under sections 302 (attempt to murder), 364 (kidnapping or abducting in order to murder), 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of offence), 436 (mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy house, etc), 120B (criminal conspiracy), 182 (false information) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, and sections 7 and 25 (1A) of the Arms Act, 1959.
The investigating team also found there was nothing adverse against the trio in their home district of Rajouri. Police recorded witnesses of 49 witnesses, from among a total of 75 listed witnesses.
The witnesses include the owner of the shed in Amshipora where the encounter was staged, local residents who identified the dead bodies, a shopkeeper who is witness to three victims taking a rented accommodation in a Chowgam house, the three victims’ families, a medical shop owner who is witness to one of the killed men having lived in Chowgam for a month before getting killed, army personnel at 62 RR Camp Reshinagri, owner of the seized A-Star vehicle in which the three victims were abducted.
Investigations led the police to two civilians, Tabish Nazir Malik of Chowgam in Shopian and Bilal Ahmed Lone of Pulwama, who were arrested on 28 September, 2020. Lone would later turn approver.
During interrogation, the civilians are said to have disclosed details that helped reconstruct that night’s events.
According to the chargesheet, the approver confessed that a conspiracy was hatched by Capt Singh to abduct three men.
On 27 December, the chief judicial magistrate of Shopian ordered the Army to give its opinion on whether Capt Singh should be tried by a criminal court of ordinary jurisdiction or through a court martial.
Here are four key issues on which, according to the police investigation, Brigadier Katoch misled the media on the killings:
Captain Violated Rules, Didn’t Inform Seniors
At the press conference, Brigadier Katoch said they “received a tip-off” about the presence of four to five unidentified terrorists in Amshipora, and that a cordon was laid, and the terrorists killed in retaliatory fire.
What Investigation Found: There was no cordon, no search party, no tip-off.
In fact, according to the chargesheet, standard operating protocols adopted by the army in cordon and search operations were entirely absent in the Amshipora encounter.
This is evident from the fact that Capt Singh proceeded alone along with two civilians in a pre-arranged civilian vehicle (the A-Star), it said.
The chargesheet added that no police representative was taken before or during the operation. “The accused Captain did not inform his seniors till the last moment of the design. No civilian witnesses were taken into confidence throughout the plan.” Both these measures are part of SOP.
Four army witnesses told police that Capt Singh proceeded alone, while asking the rest of the unit to reach the spot, “leading them to believe that contact with the militants was possible”.
The men later approached the spot on foot after disembarking from their vehicle, when they heard bursts of live ammunition fire even before they had laid the cordon. The army witnesses said they were told by Capt Singh that he had been forced to fire as the militants were trying to escape.
“They planted illegally acquired weapons and material on their dead bodies after stripping them of their identities and tagged them as hardcore terrorists in possession of war-like stores and deliberately providing false information to colleagues/senior,” the chargesheet said.
Army Officer Abducted Three Workers
About the identities of the three slain men, Brigadier Katoch said there was intelligence about four to five unidentified terrorists in Amshipora.
What Investigation Found: The men were labourers, abducted from Chowgam in a civilian vehicle by an army officer.
The police probe found that the Rajouri men had arrived in Shopian only hours earlier. They rented a ground-floor room in a two-storey house in Shopian’s Chowgam area. The men had taken the place on rent on 17 July 2020, before being abducted the same night.
The owner of the house where the victims had rented a room confirmed to the police that the three had gone missing just after taking the room on rent.
According to the chargesheet, on 17 July, the accused civilians arrived at the army camp in Reshinagri in Lone’s Alto, bearing registration number JK 22B 3365. From there they accompanied Capt Singh in another white private car, a Maruti Suzuki A-Star bearing registration number DL8CU 0649. Prior arrangement of this car was done by Capt Singh. They drove this car to Chowgam in Shopian from where they abducted three men from their rented accommodation.
According to the chargesheet, the accused trio took the same car via the Chowgam-Sedow-Ali Mod-Saidpora-Amshipora route, a 10-km drive, to transport the victims to the site of the crime.
The three victims were made to walk towards the brick structure inside the orchard in Amshipora where they were killed, the chargesheet said. A police reconstruction of the crime said it took the investigating team six minutes, or 460 steps, from the road to the ‘crime scene of murder’.
Careful Destruction Of Evidence
Brigadier Katoch told the press in July 2020 that the “dead bodies of the terrorists”, with seized weapons and material for explosive devices recovered from them, were handed over to the J&K Police.
What Investigation Found: Illegally sourced weapons were planted on the slain men, captain tried to set fire to the shed.
“The accused captain furnished false information to mislead the senior officers and for getting lodgment of FIR done to tailor fit his motive for grabbing prize money in furtherance of criminal conspiracy,” the chargesheet said. It said the Indian Army’s contention that weapon seizure comprised a “huge war-like store” including two pistols with two magazines and four empty pistol cartridges, 15 live cartridges and 15 empty cartridges of AK-series machine were found “non-convincing”.
The police investigation has no leads on a source of illegal weapons.
The chargesheet also said the accused had, in fact, destroyed evidence by setting fire to the shed at the encounter site.
The Three Were In Touch 300 Times
Brigadier Katoch said the operation was the result of a tip-off.
What Investigation Found: Army captain and two civilians had conspired over months to stage the encounter, victims were labourers who had just arrived in Shopian hours earlier.
Call detail records (CDR) of the accused trio obtained by the police indicate that the accused trio were in constant touch.
Capt Singh was in touch with the two accused civilians during the course of a month before the encounter.
The CDR of the accused Cap Singh’s phone number reveal that he had calls with accused civilian Tabish Nazir 195 times from 14 June 2020 to 17 July 2020.” This includes 13 calls between Captain Singh and Tabish on 15, 15, 16 and 17 July 2020, the four days preceding the encounter.
The chargesheet reveals that the two accused Bilal Ahmad Lone and Tabish Nazir had 188 calls between them from 29 February up to 11 August 2020.
“Accused Captain has 91 calls with Bilal Ahmad Lone with the first call on 23 June 202o up to 16 July 2020,” the charge sheet states.
The police investigation of the call records of seized mobile phone numbers also reveal that the accused Capt Singh was operating two other mobile numbers under subscriber names of Basheer Ahmad Kasana and Khursheed Ahmad Sheikh, through which he was in touch with the Lone and Malik.
Some Unanswered Questions Remain
The Maruti A-Star car in which the victims were transported to the crime scene belonged to a civilian in the Reshinagri area of Shopian.
In a statement made before the additional mobile magistrate of Shopian, the car-owner said an “army personnel of Reshinagri Camp” had approached him at his home on 17 July 2020, the morning of the incident, and took his vehicle.
The car-owner said that on 18 July, the Army had informed him that his A-Star was lying at Amshipora Nar in faulty condition. The police have not identified the soldier who approached the car-owner in Reshinagri for his vehicle.
The chargesheet contending that the conspiracy to “abduct, murder, and stage the encounter” was carried out by the accused in order to claim prize money “under earmarked source money component for genuine information”.
But the police have conceded they have not made any progress on recovering the prize money or establishing if such a sum was indeed paid to the accused.
(Auqib Javeed & Irfan Mehraj are Srinagar-based journalists.)