Srinagar: A magisterial probe has been initiated into the killing of a private school principal who allegedly died in the custody of the Special Operations Group (SOG) of Jammu and Kashmir in Srinagar.
The school principal has been identified as Rizwan Asad Pandit, a resident of Awantipora area of South Kashmir's Pulwama District. As per sources, he was picked up by the local police on Sunday and lodged in the Cargo Camp of SOG in Srinagar. He has died during the intervening night of Monday and Tuesday (March 18, 19), sources said.
The police issued a statement regarding the case wherein they claimed to have requested for a magisterial enquiry, “In this matter, while following the procedure laid down in Section 176 of CRPC a magisterial enquiry is underway,” the police said in a statement.
“In pursuance of terror case investigation, one suspect Rizwan Pandit, a resident of Awantipora, was in police custody. The said person died in police custody,” the police statement reads, "Separately police investigation has also been initiated in the jurisdictional area of the incident."
As news of Pandit’s death reached Awantipora, about 20 kilometres south of Srinagar, clashes erupted and hundreds of residents hurled rocks at the security forces, who responded by using tear smoke shells, pellets. Street clashes were also witnessed in Srinagar.
According to the deceased’s family, at around 10-11 p.m on March 17, the local police cordoned off five-six houses of Awantipora Town, in South Kashmir. The family members were asked to come out of their home, and females were locked in a separate room. Of all the men, Rizwan, 24, was detained by the police. He was then taken to Cargo Camp in Srinagar, an infamous interrogation centre during the peak of militancy in the 1990s, where, his family claims, he was interrogated till his death.
Zulqarnain, the victims’ brother, said the next day, the family approached the police station concerned, who feigned helpless, “On reaching, we found he been taken to Srinagar’s Cargo camp. Officials at local police station seem powerless,” he said, “Today morning we came to know that he has been killed during interrogation in police custody. We demand justice!” he added.
Six months ago, Pandit was picked up by the police and sent to a Jammu jail and was kept in the custody without any FIR, his family said, adding that he was then shifted to Kuthwa Jail on false charges. The Public Safety Act (PSA) was slapped against him. After his PSA was quashed, the police refused to release. “He was granted bail but police delayed his release for 10-15 days. The district court had issued a bail order, yet he was not released,” he added.
After being released from jail, Pandit resumed his teaching job and opened a coaching centre in his locality. Little did he know what awaited him.
Politicians from both mainstream and regional parties condemned the incident and demanded an investigation.
Former J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah demanded exemplary punishment for the killers “I had hoped custodial deaths were a thing of our dark past. This is an unacceptable development & must be investigated in a transparent, time-bound manner. Exemplary punishment must be handed out to the killers of this young man,” he wrote on Twitter.
Former Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti, blamed the government’s repressive approach for the vulnerability of the youth,” innocent men hauled from their homes for interrogation return home only in coffins now…. Stop using Kashmir to exhibit your sick chauvinistic nationalism. We have suffered enough,” she tweeted.
Moderate separatists’ leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said the incident had exposed the helplessness and the vulnerability of Kashmir’s youth. “The brutal killing once again exposes the helplessness, vulnerability and insecurity to the lives of Kashmiri’s as impunity of the authorities keep rising,” he wrote on Twitter.
CPI (M) leader Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami said: “No civilised society can tolerate such acts.”
The horror of custodial killings returns
Custodial killings were common during the peak of militancy in the early 1990s, with hundreds of youth losing their lives in interrogation centres.
“For the last 30 years, people here have been losing there lives in one way or the other. Some were killed in interrogation centres, others in fake encounters,” Jived Ahmad, a local from Srinagar said.
Echoing him, Human Rights defender, Khurram Parvez said the reason behind such an incident was the impunity given to the armed forces in Kashmir, “This is not the first case of custodial killings. Perhaps, it won't be the last, as the government continues to provide complete impunity to armed forces in Jammu and Kashmir," a human rights defender in Kashmir said.
He raised several questions on Pandit’s detention, “In the past, he was arrested and despite obtaining bail, he was kept in illegal detention for 20 days. When Rizwan was recently arrested and taken to SOG Cargo Camp, the concerned police station asked the family to not communicate with anyone about the arrested. Was he arrested under any case? And, if yes, was his remand sought from the court?
Meanwhile, the National Investigation Agency denied reports linking it with the death. “He was neither called for questioning nor was he examined at any other location in connection with cases being investigated by NIA,” the agency said in a statement.