Feature

Amid probe and protest, Sopore shocker lingers

At a time when official fact-finders are recording statements and DC Baramulla is presiding over the ‘Sopore custodial killing’ probe, cry for justice is only getting shriller with fresh dissent now coming from Delhi.

After making his parliament comeback with 4G demand and instantly drawing flak for his silence on the Gupkar Declaration, National Conference veteran, Dr Farooq Abdullah, finally did the unthinkable — the trait that made him a mercurial politician throughout his ‘colourful’ career.

Before the parliament house in Delhi, he stood in the foreground of MK Gandhi’s statue on September 20, holding a harrowing picture of the 23-year-old slain Sopore shopkeeper.

The silent mark became the most prominent protest by Kashmiri unionists since last summer, when Abdullah along with his entire crew of local unionists faced the dungeons in the wake of the Article 370 abrogation.

This act of Delhi dissent, many say, was against the “unabated offensive” in Kashmir.

The protest came at a time when Indian army is accepting wrongdoings at Shopian and District Magistrate of Baramulla is probing the possible “custodial killing” angle at Sopore.

But as the investigators are recording statements of the grieving family members, mood inside the Dar house of Apple Town Sopore remains doleful.

Dr Farooq Abdullah along with his party colleague Hasnain Masoodi during a protest in Delhi.

The only relief comes from solidarity sermons advocating patience. Addressing a crowd of mourners, a local preacher began his speech: “Suna hai bahot sasta hai khoon waha, ek basti hai jise log Kashmir kehte hai [I’ve heard you get blood for a cheap price, in a place they call Kashmir].”

This strong and sentimental community camaraderie stems from the 30-year-old Kashmir conflict that consumed its latest victim on September 16.

Irfan Ahmad Dar of north Kashmir’s Sopore town was allegedly killed in custody, but the police claim the deceased was an ‘Over Ground Worker’ for militants and died while trying to escape.

A shopkeeper by profession, Irfan was picked up by three cops a day before his death, on Tuesday morning, and was taken to the nearby camp stationed at Townhall Sopore.

The police said two Chinese grenades were recovered from his possession.

As per the CCTV footage accessed by Free Press Kashmir, Irfan was detained from his shop at 12:35 pm by three Special Operation Group personnel in civil uniform.

The raid lasted for three and a half minutes: his phone was immediately confiscated and shop moderately searched.

A screen grab of the CCTV footage showing Irfan encircled by cops in civvies inside his shop.

It all began around a fortnight ago when a door-to-door search operation at around 9:00 pm was laid by the armed forces in Sideeq Colony, where Irfan lived with his family.

During the operation, forces raised suspicion over ‘giving shelter to militants’ in Dars’ storeroom area. The family reasoned them out and the operation was eventually called off.

Irfan’s eldest brother Waheed Dar explained to this reporter: “we told them that they can check the CCTV footage that gives a clear evidence of whoever enters our house, and if something comes out of it, we’re ready to bear all consequences.”

But that wasn’t sufficient.

Three plain-clothed policemen showed up at his shop and detained Irfan, Waheed says, his elder brother Javid Dar was also picked up later in the afternoon at around 3:30 pm by the same cops, this time in uniform.

Both were repeatedly questioned on ‘whereabouts of sheltered militants’, Waheed continues, but none of the brothers were able to give a ‘satisfactory answer’. “Because they were clueless themselves,” he adds.

Tensed, Waheed, the same evening, had visited the SOG camp to intervene with the officers. Only to be left waiting outside the gate for an hour and a half. No official came to attend him. He returned home, unaware what the next morning would bring him and his family.

Later that night, around 11:00 pm, Waheed got a call from the station to pick up Javid, who was let off because of his health issues. But Irfan was asked to stay overnight.

Police say they had taken Irfan to Chairdaji village of Tujjar-Sharief ‘during the course of investigation’, but he took ‘advantage of darkness and the terrain and managed to escape’.

They maintained that Irfan’s dead body was found near a ‘stone quarry’.

Stone Quarry where police say Irfan’s dead body was found.

Inspector general of police, Kashmir, Vijay Kumar ‘believes’ that Irfan died ‘after falling on a stone’.

“He may have died due to cardiac arrest when he fled during a raid amid darkness. Let the inquiry team and medical team come up with exact details about his death,” IGP Kumar told reporters on September 17.

The exact place where Irfan’s dead body was recovered has not been officially disclosed. Even this reporter’s attempt at tracking down the location failed as the locals back in Tujjar-Sharief seemed completely unaware of any movement as such. There has been no eyewitness to the incident.

Meanwhile, several local leaders termed the police version as a ‘charade’ and a ‘cover up’.

Iltija Mufti, daughter of former CM Mehbooba Mufti, wrote on her mother’s twitter handle: “the cold blooded murder of 23 yr old Irfan Ahmed Dar, a shopkeeper by profession wrongfully accused of being an OGW is a grim reminder of how truth is mangled & stories are fabricated to justify killing innocent civilians in J&K.”

Peoples Conference chairman Sajad Lone has said that the police have done a ‘bad job at inventing a story’. “…The guilty need to be punished,” he wrote.

Last year in March, a school teacher Rizwan Pandit was similarly picked up by police and had ‘died’ in custody. No FIR was filed against the police officials in whose custody Rizwan “succumbed”.

Cases like Rizwan and Irfan are aplenty in Kashmir. According to the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, J&K saw 225 cases of custodial killings from 2002 to 2009.

Amnesty has recorded 706 custodial ‘deaths’ between 1990 and 1994.

In 2008, the state police admitted that 330 people had ‘died’ in custody in the last 18 years and that 111 had disappeared from cells, with no further information about them.

Irfan is to meet a similar fate, he would be lost and forgotten, his family feels.

“No one knows what happened with my brother in the dark,” Waheed laments. He then reaches out to his phone, which has the picture of Irfan’s dead face – swollen and heavily wounded.

“Was he tortured?” he asks.

Picking holes in police version, Waheed says they were not even informed of Irfan’s death.

“In fact,” he says, “the same morning at around 10:00 am, I again visited the SOG camp. Once again, I was left unattended. I waited at the gate for about an hour.”

And just like the previous evening, he had returned home, oblivious of his brother’s fate.

At around 11:30 am, when he saw media-persons looking for his house – that’s when he came to know that he has lost his brother.

Soon after, the authorities snapped the internet services in the area. With no easy access to further information, the sibling relied on his relatives in Srinagar and outside of Kashmir.

A tent of mourners at the Dar residence in Sopore.

Waheed only knew that his brother is dead; how, when, and in what circumstances – he had no idea. He did not even know where Irfan’s dead-body was.

Somehow, he was told that the body has been taken to the Police Control Room (PCR), Srinagar, for the post-mortem.

Hurriedly, Waheed, with his relatives, made his way to the PCR. “I wanted to see him. He has a beautiful face.”

“Had,” he corrected himself.

He had mistaken Irfan’s presence twice during the interview. When he was asked how many brothers were they, he said: “Ham teen hai (We are three),” then took a brief pause, and rectified, “Ab, do (Two, now).”

When he reached the PCR, he couldn’t find Irfan anywhere. “We were told that the body has been shifted. And further information could be taken from Police Station Batamaloo, from where we were asked to enquire at Ganderbal Police station; there, we were told to talk to the concerned police (Sopore).”

Meanwhile, back in Sopore, Irfan’s mother came out on the streets, wailing and protesting for her son’s dead body. Throughout this time, none of the family members knew where the Irfan was.

Only after the body reached Sonamarg for burial – about 100 kilometres from their ancestral graveyard in Sopore – the family was informed.

It was now 4:00 pm in the evening.

Around 7-8 vehicles carrying 40 relatives, left from Sopore towards Sonamarg to see Irfan, one final time. The last memory the family has of the 23-year-old is the CCTV footage where he is seen walking out of the shop along with the SOG personnel.

Out of 40, only 10-12 members were allowed to attend Irfan’s last rites. He was finally laid to rest.

“Three of his teeth were missing; his skull seemed to have taken heavy damage; his beautiful face stained with blood marks; eyes swollen and out of shape…” Waheed recalls, trying hard to constrain his emotions.

“Are you going to quote me?” he then asks this reporter.

“I want you to specifically write this – When it comes to talking to the senior officers, there are rules and formalities; when it comes to not handing over the dead body, there are rules and formalities; but where do these rules and formalities go when it comes in killing a Kashmiri?”

“There has never been any FIR against my brother, nor was he ever booked under Public Safety Act,” he adds. “He never participated in any stone-pelting or any activity as such. He was a clean, peace-loving person; a good brother and a better human being.”

A class 12 pass-out, Irfan did not have ‘big dreams’, Waheed says. But he was determined to expand the business he had set up a few years ago. Only recently he had converted his general store into a full-fledged mart, where he would spend 16 hours a day.

His father passed away two months ago and Irfan was slowly filling his shoes. The family, now survived by two brothers, a sister and an ailing mother, will only have Irfan’s memories to live with.

“The police said he was an OGW, and back in India, everyone is going to believe that,” Waheed says. “But only my brother and his killers know what happened in the dark, and what the reality is. Irfan was not the only casualty that night, the truth, too, died with him.”

 

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