Bhopal: Eight SIMI men killed in encounter, but video clips raise doubts
Eight suspected members of a radical Islamist group were killed by the police in Madhya Pradesh on Monday, hours after they allegedly escaped from a high-security jail by slitting the throat of a prison guard and scaling the walls with knotted bedsheets.
The police said the eight members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) were cornered on the outskirts of the state capital and shot dead when they fired on securitymen.
A video clip purportedly showing policeman shooting at an apparently injured fugitive lying on a flat-topped rock raised doubts about the authenticity of the encounter, prompting rights groups and opposition parties to seek a probe. Another purported clip of the encounter surfaced later, showing the SIMI fugitives waving at the policemen from a rocky outcrop amid a scrub forest lowland. After a break, the video resumes to show one of the policemen firing a round from his rifle at the group on the rock.
The police said the veracity of the clips was yet to be ascertained. “We acted on intelligence and located the inmates. They fired on us and all eight were killed in crossfire,” Yogesh Chaudhury, the Bhopal inspector general of police, told reporters, adding that three cops suffered pellet injuries. He said four country-made guns and three sharp weapons were found on the SIMI men.
Sanjeev Shami, inspector general of the anti-terror squad who led the operation, however, said the fugitives were unarmed and no cop was injured in the encounter.
Three of those killed had escaped earlier from a jail in MP’s Khandwa district but were re-arrested. The police said all eight were accused in several terror cases including the 2008 Ahmedabad serial blasts, and explosions in Karimnagar, Pune and Chennai.
Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan described the lapses that led to the jailbreak as “criminal negligence” and said the incident will be probed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The government also suspended five jail department officials.
Padam Singh Meena, convenor of a village defence group in Eithkhedi village, told HT that farmers came across the eight “unidentified people” at around 7.30 am. The village is around 12 km from the jail. By that time, police said, the fleeing prisoners had shaved and also discarded their prison clothes. It was not immediately clear how and where they procured razors and the fresh clothes.
Already aware of the jailbreak, the villagers tried to intercept the youths who allegedly whipped out pistols and threatened to kill the farmers. After the SIMI men allegedly snatched food from the farmers and left, the villagers informed a police patrol.
The villagers also guided the police team towards the direction the SIMI activists had left, he said.
The SIMI activists, now perched on top of a hillock, allegedly fired at the police team, who were soon joined by commandos of the special task force, anti-terror squad and the counter-terror group.
The police said that the SIMI members were asked to surrender but they responded with gunfire. The commandos retaliated, killing the SIMI cadres on the spot. Three sniffer dogs also assisted police in the search operations.
An NIA official said in Delhi that its probe will look at the video clip. “If the veracity of video is established, we may also probe whether excessive force was used during the encounter,” said the official on condition of anonymity.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, expressed doubts over police claims that the prisoners were armed. “The entire incident should be properly investigated. A take-no-prisoners approach to policing is dangerous and harms efforts to create a rights-respecting police force.”
A jail official on condition of anonymity said the SIMI activists deliberately chose the night of Diwali to escape when “some of staff would be on Diwali vacation”.
The suspected SIMI men used knives fashioned out of prison-issue spoons, plates and tongue-cleaners to kill guard Ramashankar Yadav in the isolated B Block where they were lodged, sources said.
Investigations have revealed that the jailbirds used tongue cleaners and other material to fashion master keys and duplicate keys, which they used to unlock the cells before killing jail head warder Ramashankar Yadav. They then held another guard hostage between 2 and 3am before using bedsheets and wood lying around to make a ladder and escape after scaling two walls.
The Congress and other opposition parties demanded a judicial probe into the encounter while the BJP accused them of undermining the morale of security forces by raising questions over its authenticity.
“I am demanding a judicial probe… People of the state and country must know how terrorists with such a record were able to escape from such a high-security jail and within hours caught and shot dead,” said Congress leader Kamal Nath, a Lok Sabha MP from Madhya Pradesh. The CPI(M)’s Brinda Karat called the official version of the incident “highly dubious and suspicious”.
BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao, however, accused the Congress of batting for “terrorists… like they questioned the cross-LoC surgical strike”.
SIMI was launched in 1977 for the welfare of Muslim youth but gradually adopted a more hardline ideology, especially after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. It was banned in 2001.
(With inputs from HTC Delhi and agencies)