First hearing in Bhopal jailbreak, ‘encounter killings’ starts behind closed doors
The jailbreak on October 31 night and the encounter the following morning on a hilltop on the outskirts of Bhopal raised suspicion and a host of questions.
The judicial commission probing the jailbreak and subsequent killing of eight alleged SIMI fugitives in an encounter in Madhya Pradesh last October began hearing depositions behind closed doors on Wednesday to the disapproval of relatives of those killed.
“Everything is ‘private’ and ‘secret’ here,” lamented the father of one of the slain men, killed by police hours after they had reportedly escaped from a high-security prison in the state capital, Bhopal.
“They have not given us the copy of the FIRs of the jailbreak and the encounter or even the postmortem report. My son’s body had injury marks. How did he get them? Without these documents, our lawyers cannot argue the case,” he added on condition of anonymity.
The jailbreak on October 31 night and the encounter the following morning on a hilltop on the outskirts of Bhopal raised suspicion and a host of questions. Videos purportedly showing policemen firing at some of the undertrials as they lay on the ground triggered allegations that the shooting was staged and the killings were cold-blooded murder.
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The state government, however, quickly applauded the policemen, with chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan felicitating and announcing cash awards for the officers who participated in the operation. It was only after a nationwide outcry over the manner of the killings that the cash awards were kept in abeyance and the authorities ordered a judicial probe to establish the truth.
But human rights groups constantly accused the government of dragging its feet over the investigation.
The Madhya Pradesh government set up the one-man commission headed by retired high court judge SK Pandey by an order on November 7.
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Pandey took charge formally only on December 5 after the government allotted an office in Vindyachal Bhavan and provided him with staff, including two former judicial officers.
His initial tenure was for three months. It expired on February 7 and he has been given an extension of another six months.
Officials admitted that the commission till date has not visited the encounter site or spoken to the families of those killed. It has so far collected 5,000 pages of documents — from police, jail and forensic departments and also from lawyers of the men killed in the encounter.
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The judge’s decision to hold “in-camera” hearings have added to the exasperation of the slain men’s relatives. Some of them who came from Ujjain and Khandwa for Wednesday’s proceedings said they had little option but to hope that justice would be done.
Social activist Harsh Mander, however, was stronger in his reaction.
“The private hearing is absolutely wrong. It goes against democratic norms. When the state is suspected of having resorted to extra-judicial killing it is necessary to hold the hearing in public with all transparency and openness. The public needs to be reassured that the state has done the right thing, at the time when the official narrative is implausible,” he said.
Anand Mohan Mathur, a former state advocate general, said though the judge was within his rights, it was wrong to have a private hearing. “This is a public matter and the hearing should be public. It is not a family dispute that has to be settled privately,” he said.