Srinagar: Dozens of calls shared between the accused, including an Army captain, in the month preceding the alleged Shopian encounter. Two SIM cards of the captain registered under aliases. Two cars, one of which remains unidentified. A distance of six minutes and 460 steps that the victims were allegedly made to walk to the spot where they died.
These are some of the pieces of the puzzle that now envelops the controversial 18 July 2020 encounter in Shopian, where an Army captain is accused of killing three civilians in an allegedly staged encounter.
This information has been outlined in the charge sheet prepared by Jammu and Kashmir Police as it investigates the killings of three youngsters, identified as Imtiaz Ahmed (20) and his relatives Abrar Ahmed (16) and Ibrar Ahmed (25).
The accused in the case are Army Captain Bhoopendra Singh of Rashtriya Rifles’ 62 battalion and local residents Tabish Nazir Malik and Bilal Ahmed Lone.
In September 2020, even the Army admitted there was something amiss about the operation, citing “prima facie” evidence to say troops had exceeded their brief under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Disciplinary proceedings, it added, have been launched against the officials involved.
The case is currently in a Kashmir court, where the last remand hearing took place in December. Speaking to ThePrint, a source in J&K Police said their investigation in the case continues to procure conclusive evidence.
A cash prize?
Members of a Rajouri-based family, Ibrar, Abrar and Imtiaz had arrived in Kashmir on 16 July 2020 to work in its famed orchards. One of them, Imtiaz, already worked in the Valley and had brought Ibrar and Abrar along to join him.
They were last seen at the house they rented — at Chowgam village — on 17 July. By the next morning, the landlord had told ThePrint earlier, the trio were nowhere to be seen. It was, however, another month before some clarity emerged about their disappearance.
After their family approached police in Rajouri with a missing persons complaint, their images surfaced on social media. Then, an image from the site of the 18 July “encounter” at a small orchard in Amshipora village of Shopian, showing three slain men, went viral. The family subsequently identified the three dead men as their missing relatives. DNA tests have since confirmed their identity.
According to the J&K Police’s investigation so far, the Army captain and his fellow accused allegedly abducted the trio, killed them, and planted weapons on them. The charge sheet also makes a mention of rewards allegedly reserved for informers in Kashmir, saying the captain and his co-accused had their sights set on a Rs 20 lakh cash prize.
Police have interrogated the captain, Malik and Lone, who has now turned approver, more than once but informed the Shopian court hearing the case that they failed to find the source of the weapons.
Among other things, the J&K Police charge sheet, which has been accessed by ThePrint, contains the call data records (CDRs) of the Army captain.
According to the charge sheet, the captain was in contact with Malik and Lone through at least three phones, two of which weren’t registered under his name. They had been issued in the names of “Bashir Ahmed Kasana” and “Khursheed Ahmed Sheikh”, the charge sheet states.
The captain, the charge sheet says, used “Basheer Khan” as a code name to operate in the field. The certified copy of the CDR for one number used by the captain have not been received, it adds.
However, the CDR accessed by police shows the captain had been in touch with Lone from two phones since January 2020, the charge sheet says. The frequency of the calls, it adds, increased in June, a month before the “encounter”. The captain, police say, spoke to Tabish 195 times between 16 June 2020 and the day before the encounter. From 23 June to 16 July, the captain spoke to Lone 91 times, the charge sheet adds.
‘Bid to arrange weapons’
A major question surrounding the 18 July “encounter” is the source of the weapons found on the slain men. While police have not zeroed in on the source, its charge sheet details the captain’s alleged efforts to get in touch with a special police officer (SPO) who has been posted at Cargo, which is the Srinagar headquarters of J&K Police’s counter-insurgency unit, as a staffer for a Deputy Superintendent of Police since September 2019.
The SPO is now among the witnesses in the case.
According to the charge sheet, police investigation so far has revealed that Malik knew the SPO and tried to arrange a meeting between him and the captain and Lone. The SPO allegedly refused to participate in the meeting.
Following the refusal, the charge sheet states on the basis of the CDRs, the captain called up the SPO and asked him to arrange guns. The SPO refused and called Malik who told him that the captain has been harassing him to arrange weapons, the charge sheet claims. The SPO did not receive any further calls, it adds, quoting the policeman.
On 17 July, the charge sheet states, Lone and Malik went to meet Captain Singh at the RR camp in an Alto car that belonged to Lone.
The camp is located a few yards away from the Chowgam residence the three victims had rented.
Another car was allegedly arranged by the captain to the spot of the crime. Then, the charge sheet claims, the captain, Malik and Lone reached the rented accommodation of Ibrar, Abrar and Imtiaz and allegedly abducted them.
The car — seized by police — was used to transport the victims to a spot near an orchard, from where the victims were allegedly made to walk, the charge sheet states. The document also makes a passing reference to a third car — an i10 — but police have told court that this vehicle hasn’t been found.
Based on a reconstruction of the alleged crime, police said, it took their investigators six minutes and 460 steps to cover the distance from this spot to the brick structure at the orchard where the trio were killed.
The 75 witnesses, more than half of whom are central and J&K government officials, include some Army officers too.
One of them is a colonel who, according to the charge sheet, told police that on 18 July he was informed that the assault team of Captain Singh’s company had established contact with militants.
The captain had allegedly informed his regiment that “his source had shown the target house and there was presence of five terrorists in the house”. While laying the initial cordon, he allegedly said, his team came under “automatic fire (sic) from two directions by the terrorists”. Singh also allegedly said “two more fires (sic)” came from the “house” — reference to a brick structure at the orchard where the encounter allegedly occurred — after the cordon was placed.
The colonel told police that “on first light two civilians were sent towards the target house escorted by personnel of Special Operations Group Shopian”.
“One of the civilians was sent inside the house with a mobile,” he is quoted as saying. The civilian, he added, used “WhatsApp video call to ascertain the location of the terrorists”.
“He confirmed that one terrorist was sitting in position while one was lying on the floor. This was conveyed to me by a major (name withheld) and a deputy superintendent of police,” the charge sheet quotes the colonel as having said.
“After some speculative firing, the search party commenced the search. They carried out house clearing drills, which led to neutralisation of three terrorists,” it adds, again quoting the colonel.
The charge sheet also quotes an RR team (comprising a subedar, lance naik, and two sepoys) narrating the events in the run-up to the incident.
The captain, the charge sheet quotes them as saying, left the camp with Lone and Malik and directed them to “reach the spot, leading them to believe contact with militants was possible”. But as they were approaching the spot on foot, they “heard a few bursts of fire”. Singh allegedly informed the team that he had to fire on the hiding militants as they were trying to escape.
The charge sheet says two majors who furnished written information for the FIR could not be produced to record statements as both have been transferred to eastern Ladakh.
While Captain Singh claimed to have fired 37 rounds from his weapon, police say in the charge sheet that they found 15 rifle cartridges from more than four firearms capable of firing 7.62x39mm rifle cartridges.
“From the circumstances at the crime scene, which are contrary to the findings of the ballistic expert opinion, the version of the accused Captain Bhoopendra Singh regarding information furnished by him in the FIR is not supported,” the charge sheet states.
Expert opinion related to weapons used by the captain is still awaited, it adds.
Police say the accused “destroyed evidence of real crime that they have committed and also have been purposefully projecting false information as part of a criminal conspiracy hatched between them with motive to grab prize money of rupees 20 lakh”.
However, police have told court that they have not recovered the money.