Bhopal jailbreak: Inquiry report clears MP cops over SIMI men's encounter, but leaves many questions unanswered
The inquiry report on the SIMI encounter after the Bhopal jailbreak held that the use of force was 'quite inevitable and quite reasonable'.
A week after the Justice JK Jain Committee gave a clean chit to the Madhya Pradesh Police and troops of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in the Mandsaur firing case, the judicial inquiry committee looking into the Bhopal jailbreak and the encounter that killed eight members of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) has declared the city police innocent.
Eight SIMI activists had escaped from the Bhopal Central Jail in the intervening night of 30 October and 31 October, 2016. They were found and shot dead by the police in Manikhedi Kot Pathar village on the outskirts of Bhopal, eight hours after they escaped prison by slitting the throat of a guard, Ramashankar Yadav, with a sharp-edged weapon. The eight prisoners were Mohammad Salik, Zakir Hussain Sadiq, Amzad Khan, Mehboob Guddu, Mohammad Aqeel Khilji, Mujeeb Shaikh, Mohammad Khalid Ahmed and Abdul Majid.
"The encounter on 31 October, 2016, done by the police was reasonable under the prevailing circumstances," the report said. "The action of the police was in consonance of the provision of law under sections 41 and 46 (2) (3) of the CrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure)... The use of force resulting in the death of the escaped persons was quite inevitable and quite reasonable under the prevailing circumstances."
Months after the incident, on 6 June, 2017, the inquiry commission visited Bhopal Central Jail and the encounter site and examined the evidence. The commission said they had found that the SIMI men had opened the lock of their cell using a key and scaled the outer wall of the jail using bedsheets. The judicial panel has recommended raising the height of the walls of the jail after it concluded that the undertrials had been able to escape easily because of the low walls.
The commission has held prison staff accountable for the jailbreak, alleging that their negligence had allowed the SIMI operatives to escape. The jail department has named 10 staff based on prima facie evidence, including personnel of the Special Armed Forces of the Madhya Pradesh Police, according to the inquiry report. "A departmental inquiry has been initiated against these persons," the report said. "Similarly, a departmental inquiry against personnel of the special armed forces on duty will determine their fate."
Retired high court judge SK Pandey headed the Judicial Commission of Inquiry. Quoting depositions on the affidavit, his report said, "The deceased persons were asked to surrender, but instead of complying, they started firing at the police and public. So it became necessary for the police to open fire on the persons who had escaped from lawful custody. Even after the police opened fire, they showed no intention to surrender, and as a result, sustained injuries and died on the spot."
Alleging bias in the report, family members of the SIMI activists who were killed said they will move the high court or Supreme Court against it. Khilji's brother Khalil Chauhan they were not shocked by the submission. "The government has been acting biased since the encounter took place. We will move the Supreme Court against it." Amjad Khan's brother Salman Khan said: "I have yet to see the report. I can't understand what to say. God will ensure justice."
The Congress — the Opposition party in Madhya Pradesh — said the report was hardly surprising, alleging that the state government has been trying to sweep the matter under the rug since the beginning, just like the Mandsaur incident in which six farmers were killed. Leader of Opposition in Madhya Pradesh Assembly Ajay Singh called the report trash.
"The government has been giving a clean chit to the police in every incident, be it the Mandsaur police firing or the killings in the police encounter on 31 October, 2016," he said. "We will raise the matter in the Assembly."
Unanswered questions in the report
The inquiry report tabled in the House on Monday — the first day of the Assembly session — has several missing details. It does not clearly mention the statement of the only eyewitness in the case, of Chandan Kumar Tilanthe, the guard who the SIMI men had tied up when he had tried to thwart their escape. Although the guard is likely the key to unearth the truth of the incident, he was untraceable a few hours after the jailbreak.
The report does not elaborate on why only four of the 42 CCTV cameras installed in the jail were functioning the night of the prisonbreak. It is also unclear about who gave fresh clothes, food and weapons to the SIMI men after they fled.
Among the several questions left unanswered in the report are whether the prisoners had any insider help in scaling the 30-feet wall of the state's most secure jail; why their cells were left unguarded; why jail authorities did not find the murder of the guard — Ramashankar Yadav — alarming; how the prisoners procured the sharp-edged weapon used to kill him; why did their supposed connection not get them a vehicle to escape; why were they travelling together instead of separating; and why could they not get beyond 10 kilometres even eight hours after their jailbreak.
It also does not explain how three police officers sustained knife injuries when the encounter was a gunfight, and why the wounded policemen were brought out in public. The report also seems to have ignored the autopsy report, which said that all the entry wounds on the prisoners' bodies measured between 0.4 centimetre to 0.5 centimetre in diameter, consistent with wounds inflicted by small-calibre weapons. This means that the SIMI men were shot at close range. The police had claimed that the encounter team had used AK-47s, Insas rifles and pistols. Had the prisoners been shot with AK-47s or Insas rifles, the size of their entry wounds would have been larger.
The fact that the SIMI activists had close-range bullet wounds either on the left or right sides of their chests, hips and backs or in their heads indicates that the police did not try to catch them alive. They were also fired at above their waists, which violates a Supreme Court ruling that the police must fire below the waist in such situations.
However, Madhya Pradesh jail minister Antar Singh Arya believes that the judicial commission has done a good job. He said the government will look into its recommendations to improve the security at prisons.
"The probe panel has done its job and given a slew of recommendations, such as appointing a committee to examine the security at prisons to prevent such jailbreaks," he said. "The jail department has no institution of its own to train its officers and staff effectively. We welcome the report and will try to implement its recommendations to make jails more secure."
He also described as baseless the Opposition's charges against the government over the SIMI encounter case and refused to comment on the loopholes in the inquiry report.
Five of the eight SIMI members who were killed in the encounter were from Khandwa district. They all faced different charges — Amzad, Sadiq, Shaikh and Guddu were charged with attempt to murder under section 307 of the Indian Penal Code and also under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Salik was accused only under UAPA. Shaikh, who was from Ahmedabad, was accused in several cases of bomb blasts and robberies as well as under UAPA. Ujjain native Majid was an explosives expert accused under UAPA.
After the encounter, advocate Parvez Alam, who was representing seven of the eight men in the cases against them, had requested the court to continue the hearings till it pronounces verdicts so the public can know the truth. "Mujeeb Shaikh was accused in some major cases of bomb blasts and bank robberies, and I was assured that court will punish him. We were in a stronger position with the others because the prosecution did not have any evidence against the other six," the lawyer said, adding that he was not defending Mohammad Khalid Ahmed.
The prosecution mostly presents similar photocopies of certain documents in all the cases to press charges against the accused for their association with SIMI. This is the kind of evidence they use, and it does not stand trial.
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