Despite Judicial Probe, Truth On Shopian Deaths Elusive

22 June 2009
The Hindu

Srinagar: More than four weeks since the battered bodies of a young woman and her sister-in-law were found on a river-bed, the truth on how they died - and who might have killed them - remains elusive. Justice Muzaffar Jan’s ongoing inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the Shopian deaths has claimed the heads of several mid-level government officials whose conduct of the investigation sparked violent, Islamist-led protests across southern and central Kashmir. But neither Justice Jan’s Commission of Inquiry, nor a separate probe by a Jammu and Kashmir Police special investigation team has yielded evidence on the perpetrators, who may have raped and killed the women. Administrative lapses In a 60-page report that describes a welter of administrative lapses, Mr. Justice Jan has called for administrative action against the former Superintendent of Police, Javed Mattoo, as well as a Deputy Superintendent of Police, the Station House Officer in charge of the Shopian Police Station and a Sub-Inspector. Mr. Mattoo had been transferred out of Shopian soon after protests violent broke out in the town last month, and was assigned charge of the important district of Ramban. The Commission has called for action against the Shopian-based doctors who carried out separate autopsies on the victims, describing their work as “incompetent and highly unprofessional.” Experts at the Srinagar-based Forensic Sciences Laboratory have also been criticised for delaying a report showing the presence of sperm in vaginal swabs submitted by investigators by four days, from June 2 to 6. Shopian’s former District Magistrate, M.R. Thokar, has been censured, in the interim report, for his management of the protests. Errors of judgement and procedural failures by these officials, the report says, led to the loss of critical forensic evidence, and fuelled the public anger that exploded into Islamist-led protests that continue to sear parts of southern and central Kashmir. In particular, Mr. Justice Jan criticises civilian administrators and police for failing to file a first information report despite the existence of a mass of evidence, the Commission believes would have justified a criminal investigation. Mr. Justice Jan’s interim report also lays out, over 75 pages, a mass of evidence which it says leaves little doubt both victims were raped, and that their deaths were the consequence of “foul play.” Government sources said the finding was based on the testimony of investigators, witnesses and forensic documentation. But government sources said Mr. Justice Jan had not so far uncovered new forensic or circumstantial evidence that could add to the less-than-conclusive material so far gathered by police and forensic investigators. Earlier autopsy results had suggested one victim had been sexually assaulted prior to her death, and may have died because of an incision wound - a type of injury that may indicate attack with a sharp object. The doctors criticised by Mr. Justice Jan had, however, failed to establish the cause of death of the second victim and merely recorded that she had sexual intercourse at some point prior to her death. Laboratory forensic analysis and DNA profiling that could have provided a wealth of hard evidence on the nature of the assault as well valuable leads on the identities of the possible perpetrators were not carried out. For reasons that are unclear, the Jammu and Kashmir government has refused to act on media calls - and, now, Mr. Justice Jan’s finding of medical incompetence - to generate fresh evidence by exhuming the bodies and calling in independent forensic experts. Clueless on perpetrators Jammu and Kashmir Police sources said this failure could make it difficult to secure convictions if arrests are made by a special investigation team which is pursuing a separate criminal investigation into the case. Despite questioning several witnesses, and examining cellphone records, sources in the special investigation team say no credible leads have emerged on who the perpetrators of the crime might have been. Legal experts say the government’s decision to act against officials indicted by the Jan Commission could also lead to protracted court-room battles. Section 8B of the Commissions of Inquiry Act makes it imperative to allow those “prejudicially affected by the inquiry” not only to be heard, but “produce evidence in his defence”. In addition, the Act grants such persons the right to cross-examine witnesses against them. Neither of these protections, officers indicted by the Commission claim, were extended to them.