The SIMI under-trials were shot dead in 2016. Judicial probe report was submitted 7 months ago. But Madhya Pradesh’s BJP govt is sitting on it.
Bhopal: Eighteen months ago, eight under-trial men – suspected to be activists of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) – were killed in what police claimed was an encounter the morning after they allegedly escaped from the high-security Bhopal central jail.
But viral videos of the alleged encounter and logs of police wireless chatter circulated in the media soon after the incident had raised serious doubts about its genuineness.
And still do, because the BJP government of chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is sitting on a judicial inquiry report submitted seven months back instead of tabling it in the legislative assembly even as state elections loom.
The alleged encounter had raised several serious questions.
Could the men have been apprehended alive since they seemed to be signalling their willingness to surrender?
How did they, as the police claimed, manage to unlock themselves from their cells using keys fashioned out of toothbrushes and wooden implements, and scale the prison’s 32-foot and 25-foot walls using bedsheets?
Or was the entire escape a set-up?
Two inquiries and continued outcry by activists later, these and more critical questions about the alleged encounter on 31 October 2016 – the morning after Diwali – remain unanswered.
The National Human Rights Commission had pointed out several loopholes in the police probe. A subsequent magisterial inquiry gave a clean chit to the police. Then, a judicial inquiry report conducted by retired high court judge S.K. Pandey was submitted to the state government in August 2017.
This report was to be tabled in the assembly. But the state government seems to be inexplicably sitting on it.
There is speculation in Bhopal that Pandey, like the magisterial inquiry, has given a clean chit to the police, and the government doesn’t want to make the report public in an election year because it could lead to a backlash.
Sanjay Chaudhary, DG (prisons), told ThePrint: “The inquiry has been completed, but we cannot comment on it until it is tabled in the assembly. It is a sealed report.”
Madhya Pradesh public relations minister Narottam Mishra refused to comment. “It is a sensitive topic. I cannot comment on it,” he said.
Many inquests, few answers
A few days after the encounter, chief minister Chouhan had announced that the National Investigation Agency would conduct an inquiry into the jailbreak, but not the encounter killings. He applauded the policemen, and even felicitated them for their bravery.
However, protests calling the encounters “extra-judicial killings” gained national attention, leading the CM to announce a magisterial inquiry.
In the meantime, the brother of one of the suspects filed a petition in the Madhya Pradesh High Court, demanding a judicial probe into the killings. But before that could be heard, the CM ordered an independent judicial inquiry by a one-member committee and gave the responsibility to retired high court judge Pandey, asking him to file a report within three months. He even ordered another inquiry by a DG rank officer, which is also underway.
The deadline for the Pandey committee was extended several times until he finally filed the report in August 2017.
While proceedings were on in court, the defence claims it was not allowed to cross-examine prosecution witnesses on how the men managed to open high security cells with spoons and toothbrushes. The post-mortem reports were allegedly not made available to the defence lawyers and the families, while the exhibits seized by the police, including the keys used to open the cells, were allegedly not produced in court; instead, photographs were submitted.
Contradictory versions, no CCTV footage
ThePrint went through dozens of documents, including statements of witnesses, jail officials, status reports, post-mortem reports, and the magisterial inquiry report.
The post-mortem and forensic reports suggest that the men—Sheikh Mehboob, Khalid Ahmed, Saleek, Sheikh Mujeeb, Amjad, Zakir Hussain, Akeel and Abdul Majeed—were shot at from a close range. Each of them sustained bullet injuries in the chest.
The statements of prosecution witnesses are contradictory when it comes to the events leading up to the jailbreak. In addition, there is no CCTV footage of the jailbreak as cameras “were not working that night”, the events between the jailbreak and the encounter are unclear, some audio clips suggest the police were given a free hand to gun down the prisoners, and there are contradictory versions by two senior police officers of the escapees being armed.
Here are some of the key unanswered questions:
The ‘B’ wing in the Bhopal jail is monitored by CCTV cameras and 29 guards on the ground. And yet, police maintain that the eight men broke open the lock at 3.10 am, using keys made out of toothbrushes, wooden sticks and spoons.
Even more surprising is the fact that according to the jail manual, the locks are rotated from cell to cell every day. A register is maintained to ensure the same lock is not put on the same cell door in a short period of time.
“There are more than 100 locks, which are stored in a separate place when not in use. Even the guards patrolling the compound are not aware which lock will be used on which cell, as they are used in rotation. So did the prisoners make 100 different keys using toothbrushes?” asked Syed Sajid, the lawyer of the eight under-trials.
“Also, the design is such that a person cannot reach the lock from inside the cell. So how did they open the locks?”
Moonless night made them invisible to searchlights?
The officer in-charge on duty, Akhilesh Tomar, in a statement to the magistrate, blamed the jailbreak on it being the moonless Diwali night. “It was amavasya (new moon), so it was dark. There was no light in the sky, and the men took advantage of that. Since it was Diwali, most guards were on leave, so they chose that day to execute their plan,” the officer told the magistrate.
“The cameras too were not working. They successfully made weapons out of the spoons, plates and toothbrushes that they used to make keys, opened the cells, and fled after killing a guard.”
The prisoners tied up another guard before escaping, but none of the 29 guards on duty in the barrack heard a single sound, as per statements of the jail staff to the court.
After escaping the barracks, the men allegedly scaled a 32-foot wall by making a rope ladder out of bed sheets and wooden planks, then two more walls 25-foot and 5-foot high, before reaching the main road around the prison. And in all this time, no one noticed.
“There is a team that patrols the road surrounding the jail. The boundary walls have barbed wires and searchlights have been placed outside the jail, which light up the radius of over a kilometre. And yet, no one saw the men escape?” defence lawyer Sajid asked.
Arranged weapons but not a vehicle?
The police claim that after the men managed to escape, an accomplice met them at the perimeter road and handed them weapons, including country-made pistols. The men then decided to walk to a nearby village around 8 km from the prison, where they were finally surrounded and asked to surrender, eight hours after their escape.
“If they could arrange for weapons, why did they not arrange for a vehicle that would take them far from the prison? Also, if they had a pistol, they could have easily robbed a car or a scooter from a motorist to flee to a safe place. Why would they hang around the prison, that too on foot?” asked Parvez Alam, another lawyer representing the slain under-trials.
“They managed to flee the prison at 3.10 am and they were finally surrounded at around 10 am. They had at least seven hours in between. So they only covered 8 km in those seven hours? They remained in a group rather than fleeing in separate directions? The police said they were spotted sitting on a hill, washing their faces and trimming their beards. Were they on a picnic?”
No policemen injured in cross-fire?
According to the police, when the men were asked to surrender, they opened fire and started throwing stones at the police party, following which they had to open fire in self-defence. However, none of the 60 policemen sustained any bullet wounds; the escapees, on the other hand, were shot 25 times.
According to medico-legal case reports submitted in the court and accessed by ThePrint, three policemen – Dinesh Khatri, Mahendra Singh and Narayan Singh – only sustained simple injuries on fingers and forearms, and abrasions on knees.
The doctor who carried out the medical examination of the policemen told the magistrate that none of the injuries were caused by a firearm.
An NHRC member who has been following up on the case pointed out the contradictions in the police claims.
“The policemen did not sustain any bullet wound, contrary to their claim that they opened fire in retaliation. Also, soon after the encounter, an IPS officer gave a statement saying that the escapees were not armed; however, later, another officer gave a contradictory statement saying that two .315 bore pistols, four empty shells, four live rounds, two country-made pistols, improvised weapons and some dry fruits were found next to the bodies,” the member said.
Why were most bullet wounds in the upper body?
According to a report by the NHRC, most bullet wounds were found in the head, chest and back regions of the men’s bodies.
Post-mortem reports also show that the men were fired at from a close range, mostly in the upper parts of the body.
Sheikh Mehboob sustained two bullet wounds — one in the chest, measuring 0.5 x 0.4 cm, the other in the hip, measuring 0.4 cm.
Khalid Ahmed sustained five shots — one 1.5 cm above the eyebrow, a second measuring 0.4 x 0.3 cm just below the first wound, another one 5 cm below the left nipple measuring 0.4 x 0.3 cm, a fourth being 13 cm below the left nipple, and a fifth just below right nipple.
Saleek had five bullet wounds — three in the chest, each measuring 0.5 x 0.4 cm, one in the middle of the right arm measuring 1 x 5 cm, and one on his right thigh measuring 0.8 x 0.5 cm.
Sheikh Mujeeb sustained two bullet wounds — one in the chest (0.3 cm) and other in the thigh (1 x 0.5 cm), apart from injuries to the vertebrae.
Amjad also received two bullet wounds — both in his chest, measuring 0.4 cm and 0.5 cm each.
Zakir sustained four bullet wounds — two in the chest (measuring 4.5 x 3 cm and 0.5 cm), one in the head (0.3 cm) and one in the back (0.4 cm).
Akeel had three bullet wounds — one in his shoulder (0.4 cm), another just 1.5 cm away from the first wound, and a third in the hip bone measuring 0.4 x 0.4 cm.
Abdul Majeed sustained four bullet wounds — one in the face close to the eye, one in the shoulder (0.5 cm), and two on the elbows measuring 0.6 cm each.
According to a forensics expert, the reports suggest that the shots were fired from close range.
“No blackening around bullet wounds or gunpowder is observed to suggest that the bullet was fired from three feet or more,” he said.
Why were video clips ignored?
Several videos taken by residents of the village who witnessed the encounter showed police personnel shooting the already collapsed body of one of the accused. One of the persons was also heard shouting: “Aim at the chest. Finish him.”
The video showed that all dead men lay very close to each other.
In another video, five men were seen standing on a cliff and waving their hands. “The video is shot from a point close to where the police were, and personnel are heard saying loudly on the walkie talkie that they can see five people who want to talk. If they knew that the men were waving to talk, why did they open fire at them?” lawyer Alam asked.
These videos were circulated through WhatsApp. However, none of them were taken on record, despite being available on YouTube.
“We had requested the villagers who had recorded the videos to send them to us, but no one gave it in record,” an officer investigating the case said.
SIMI suspects were under-trials, not convicts
Records show that the men had cases registered against them under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), along with Arms Act, cheating, robbery, and murder.
However, in all the cases, they were either under-trials or had been acquitted. Of the eight men, only Akeel was convicted in a case of provocation for rioting and hurting religious sentiments in 2006.
However, Tomar, the jail in-charge at the time, stated that the men were “hardened terrorists”. In a statement made to the court, he said: “In May 2017, a case was registered against them for raising anti-national slogans. They were hardened terrorists who even radicalised people inside the prison. They connived with other SIMI sympathisers in the jail and always created trouble.”
Saleek had four cases against him, including a 2013 jailbreak case in Khandwa, of which he was under trial in three and had been acquitted in one.
Sheikh Mujeeb had eight cases against him, of which he was acquitted in one, and under trial in the rest.
Zakir Hussain had 12 cases of robbery, loot, and murder against him, and was under trial in all.
Amjad too had eight cases against him under UAPA, robbery, and jailbreak, of which he was acquitted in three and was under trial in five cases.