Wednesday, February 21, 2018
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Bhopa Jailbreak: Questions raised about police killings

The lawyer of the prisoners who had been killed by police in India's Bhopa said the killings were "pre-planned murder".

The lawyer of the prisoners who were killed by the police after escaping a high-security jail in the central Indian city of Bhopal called the killings "a cold blooded murder" as opposition parties and activists alleged that the encounter between the prisoners and the security forces may have been "faked".

Perwez Alam, the lawyer who represented seven out of eight prisoners killed on Monday, said that he believes the prison-break and the following deadly encounter were staged by the authorities.

"It is a fake encounter, a cold-blooded murder. It was pre-planned murder and I believe they did not escape the jail, but they were made to flee by the police," he said on Tuesday.

"I am going to petition the High Court for a judicial inquiry or investigation by the central bureau of investigation."

Conflicting accounts

Authorities in the state of Madhya Pradesh said on Monday that the men, suspected of being members of the outlawed Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), were shot dead on the outskirts of Bhopal after they slit the throat of a guard and escaped the high-security Bhopal Central Jail by scaling the facility's walls with knotted bedsheets.

Yogesh Choudhary, Bhopal's inspector general of police, initially said that the men were unarmed but were killed after resisting efforts to be returned to custody. Choudhary later changed his account and told reporters that "they had weapons and cross-firing took place".

Video recordings of the encounter between the police officers and the prisoners which were shared on social media on Monday, however, showed crude weapons lying next to the bodies, triggering scepticism in some quarters about the police version of events.

In one of the videos, some of the escaped prisoners are seen standing on a hilltop with raised hands.

One officer is heard saying, "They are trying talk to us".

In another video, a plain-clothed man is seen pulling out what looks like a brand new knife from the waistband of one of the bodies.

"The purported video which has surfaced in the public space raises very disturbing questions as to whether the encounter was genuine or fake," Congress leader Manish Tewari told the Indian Express on Tuesday.

"It also raises the equally pertinent question with regard to the alleged jail break."

Indian newspapers also questioned the veracity of the police version of events, and asked how eight "unarmed" prisoners managed to escape from a high-security facility with over 30 feet high walls and a multi-layered security system.

No answers were offered by officials on how the prisoners got past the surveillance and why the cameras in the prison were not functional at the time of the jail break, they said.

"It is an ISO certified jail which means it is high tech and CCTV cameras are mounted in every corner of the prison building," Alam said.

"Why are not the police disclosing the CCTV footage? Now they are saying the CCTV cameras were not functioning. That does not sound convincing."

READ MORE: Muslim 'terror drill' draws outrage in India 

The video footage of the aftermath of the incident also showed the dead prisoners were clad in civilian clothes and wearing watches, something they would not be allowed to do while they were in prison.  

This caused many to question if the prisoners had logistic help from outside or inside the prison during their escape.  Once again, officials did not offer an answer to this question. 

The police said the alleged "encounter" in which the men were killed have taken place around eight hours after the jail break and 15 kilometres away from the prison. 

An "encounter" is a euphemism used in India to describe killings by the police or the armed forces of suspects in gun battles. But civil rights activists argue that in many cases, "encounters" are simply extrajudicial killings by the security forces who want to bypass India’s laws and slow-functioning judiciary.

Awaiting trial

Indian authorities have accused SIMI of carrying out several deadly bombings and of having links with armed groups based in Pakistan.

Police blamed the group for the serial bombing of Mumbai commuter trains in 2006 which killed 187 people, as well as bomb attacks in New Delhi.

The government banned the group in 2001 in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

But in India, membership of a banned organisation is not a crime, according to the Supreme Court. 

The Supreme Court had ruled in 2011 that mere membership of a banned organisation in India "does not make a person criminal unless he or she resorts to violence or incites people to violence".

The escaped prisoners who were killed during Monday's encounter were not yet convicted of any crime and they were under trial for crimes relating to the Unlawful Activities act.

Their lawyer said the police was "deliberately postponing their trial" because they knew that his clients may have been acquitted. 

"Had my clients been acquitted, the police investigation would have been questioned. The police did not want this," Alam said. "The trial was running for the past six years and the police was deliberately delaying the case."

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