Special Investigation Team Bungled Shopian Probe

13 August 2009
The Hindu

New Delhi: Eight weeks after a Jammu and Kashmir Police Special Investigation Team began probing the May 29 deaths of two women in the town of Shopian, the State government has decided to hand over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Behind the governmentís decision lies mounting frustration at the high-profile unitís failure to gather worthwhile evidence in the case of the alleged rape-murder of the women, which sparked street violence in many of Kashmirís urban centres. On Tuesday, that failure was illustrated in stark relief by revelations that vaginal samples submitted by the SIT to the Central Forensic Science Laboratory for DNA tests were fakes gathered from women unconnected to the victims. Formed on June 8, on the orders of Director-General of Police Kuldeep Khoda, the SIT was widely expected to make rapid progress in the Shopian investigation. But its investigators failed to gather any evidence of consequence that established how the victims died, if they were sexually assaulted, and who the perpetrators might have been. Prodded by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in July, the SIT first arrested four police officers who had been indicted by the Justice Muzaffar Jan Commission of Inquiry for their failure to follow standard evidence-gathering procedures. Shopian Superintendent of Police Javed Iqbal Mattoo, his deputy Rohit Baskotra, Station House Officer Shakeel Ahmad and sub-inspector Ghazi Abdul Karim were held on July 15, on suspicion of having tampered with evidence. However, the SIT was unable to establish what evidence they suppressed or tampered with, nor did it find evidence linking them to the alleged rape-murder. Blood samples from the four officers were submitted to the Central Forensic Science Laboratory in New Delhi, for tests to match their DNA against semen that was claimed to have been found in the now-discredited vaginal swabs. Later, Shopian-based police constable Mohammad Yasin became a target of the SITís effort to link the four officers to the alleged rape-murder. Based on testimony from a local resident, the SIT came to believe that Mr. Yasin had made repeated phone calls to superiors during the May 29 search for the victimsí bodies, in an apparent acknowledgment of unusual high-level interest in its outcome. However, call data gathered from cell phone companies serving the Shopian area showed no contact between Mr. Yasinís phone and any phone call from an unidentified instrument. For days, the SIT struggled to assemble evidence of the proposition that the call data records may have been tampered with, only to draw a blank yet again. Late last month, the SIT made a final effort to link the police to the rape-murder investigation. It collected blood samples from 47 personnel of the Jammu and Kashmir Policeís elite counter-terrorism force, the Special Operations Group. Police sources said the blood samples, which were to have been matched with the now-discredited slides, were taken even though there was no evidence to suggest that any of the personnel were involved in the alleged rape-murder. During this time, though, the SIT made almost no progress in exploring alternative investigative avenues. In its July 15 order, the High Court asked the SIT to persuade the families of the victims to allow their bodies to be exhumed, so that the cause of death could be established. However, the SIT failed to do so, leaving it with only two sets of autopsies that offered inconclusive findings on how the victims had died. Nor did it question local residents whose conduct the Justice Jan Commission had found merited investigation. In testimony to a local television station, one victimís husband had claimed that she had called him late on the night of May 29, saying she was being pursued by CRPF personnel. The husbandís claims formed the basis of allegations that police or paramilitary personnel had raped and then murdered the women. However, the husband later admitted before the Jan Commission that he did not receive a call and that his wife did not possess a phone. The husbandís subsequent testimony was borne out by call records which made clear he had not received any incoming call around 7 p.m. on May 29, the time at which he claimed to have heard from his wife. Early this month, in an effort to recover lost ground, SIT investigators requested several Shopian residents to submit blood samples for DNA testing, only to find themselves rebuffed.