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Ishrat Jahan's mother, Shamima Kauser (front left), and sister Nusrat (second from left), hold a candlelight vigil.
Ishrat Jahan's mother, Shamima Kauser (front left), and sister Nusrat (second from left), hold a candlelight vigil.

Indian police killings to face scrutiny

India has moved to prosecute police involved in extrajudicial killings – a practice long brushed off under the euphemism of "encounter killings".

NEW DELHI // Ishrat Jahan was 19 years old when she was shot dead by police on a lonely stretch of motorway between Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar.

For almost a decade, the officers who chased her blue Tata Indica car that night faced no charges for the death of the young student and three other people in the car.

That changed last week amid broader moves to prosecute police involved in extrajudicial killings - a practice long brushed off under the euphemism of "encounter killings".

"I demand death for my daughter's killers," said Ms Jahan's mother, Shamima Kauser, at a rally in support of her case.

Encounter killings have a long history in India. Policemen first coined the term to describe a shooting in self-defence. But the definition has broadened and today an encounter killing means a policeman has altered the crime scene to make it appear as though they fired to protect themselves.

Until now, the courts had largely turned a blind eye, carving out an unwritten legal exception for police.

But in a landmark case on Friday, 13 policemen were found guilty of a 2006 encounter killing in Mumbai - the first time the city's police have been convicted of the crime.

Also last week, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed charges in the Gujarat High Court alleging that members of the Ahmedabad Police, in 2004, staged an encounter killing and shot dead four people, including Ms Jahan.

The CBI did not comment on the police's contention that the four people were suspected to be working for Lashkar-i-Taiba, a militant group based in Pakistan that is believed to be behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

The charge sheet only said the encounter was staged and that the police had not shot the four in the course of a firefight.

India's Intelligence Bureau told the CBI in February that Ms Jahan and her associates were part of a terror unit, and that Ms Jahan was a suicide bomber.

But Ms Jahan's family has maintained that she had no ties to Let, and a huge social media campaign has rallied around her case.

India's police departments, particularly in the big cities, have been using encounter killings for more than 20 years and the practice appears to be on the rise.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recorded 555 cases of alleged fake encounters between 2009 and 2013.

In March, the deputy home minister of India, RPN Singh, said in parliament that the report from the NHRC was of "serious concern" and that none of the policemen involved had been prosecuted or suspended.

"The number of such fake encounter killings has been going up," said Kavita Srivastava, of the People's Union for Civil Liberties yesterday.

"Even the NHRC number only reflects the number of complaints they have received. There must be many, many more."

Encounter killings were a popular practice in Mumbai in the 1980s and 1990s as the police attempted to clean up the city's underworld by shooting first and asking questions later.

A policeman in Punjab, Surjit Singh, admitted recently that he had killed more than 80 people in staged encounters during a time of militancy in the state.

In Gujarat, DG Vanzara, the leader of the police team that killed Ms Jahan and her associates, has already been suspended and placed under arrest for his involvement in another encounter killing from 2005.

SR Darapuri, a former policeman who is now a human-rights activist in Lucknow, said that police chiefs encourage policemen to carry out encounter killings by rewarding them with promotions.

"When a private citizen kills somebody in self defence, an investigation is required to be carried out, but no such rule exists for policemen killing in self defence," Mr Darapuri said. "So all these encounter killings go uninvestigated and unprosecuted."

Only the NHRC and its state chapters register complaints, but because these organisations are understaffed and underfunded only a limited number of complaints can be investigated.

The High Court in Andhra Pradesh decided in 2009 that every encounter killing must be investigated. The state government of Andhra Pradesh appealed that ruling and the case is now before the Supreme Court.

Mr Darapuri said that if the Supreme Court also decided that encounter killings should be investigated "then I am sure the number of these killings will sharply go down. Right now, the police enjoy too much immunity in such cases."

In April, examining the specific case of encounters in insurgency-torn Manipur, in India's north-east, the Supreme Court expressed its concern at the 1,500 encounter killings that occurred in the state in the past three decades.

"We can't tell you how sorrowful we are," the court said. "There is no respect for human lives."

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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