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Black flags and barricades greet Kashmir investigators

Posted by Kashmir Portal on June 16, 2009

Black flags and barricades greet Kashmir investigators

Praveen Swami

Special team starts work on mystery deaths of south Kashmir women

Investigators have no firm determination on how one of the victims died

Forensic evidence vitiated by doctors’ admissions that the post-mortem was incomplete

SHOPIAN: Black flags and barricaded streets greeted detectives of a crack unit set up to investigate the death of two south Kashmir women, as they conducted their first visits on Thursday to the sites where the bodies were found.

Jammu and Kashmir’s Government hopes Deputy Superintendent of Police Mushtaq Shah’s Special Investigation Team will establish if Shopian residents Nilofar Ahanger and her teenage sister-in-law were victims of rape and murder — and, if so, who the perpetrators might have been.

Islamist-led protests, fuelled by claims that Ms. Ahanger and Asiya Jan were carried out by police personnel, have led to clashes with police in which hundreds have been injured. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah desperately needs the SIT to succeed to rebuild his battered credibility.

Late on the night of May 29, Shakeel Ahanger walked into the Shopian police station to complain that his wife and sister were missing. Both women, Mr. Ahanger said, had set out for the family’s apple orchard at Deegam-Nagbal early in the afternoon; he had begun to worry after they failed to return home when darkness fell.

Police found 22-year-old Nilofar Ahanger’s body floating near the Zawoora-Batpora bridge just before dawn. Her sister-in-law’ s corpse was found by villagers not long after, about a kilometre and half further downstream.

Mobs gathered outside Shopian’s district hospital as doctors arrived to autopsy the bodies, responding to rumours that the two women had been raped and then murdered. Protesters soon turned on the doctors, claiming they were seeking to exonerate the perpetrators. District authorities then brought in a second set of doctors from neighbouring Pulwama.

It wasn’t until June 7 that Shopian’s Chief Medical Officer provided the final findings of the autopsy conducted by the town’s doctors. Asiya Jan, it stated, had likely died because of injuries on her head, which caused “haemorrhage followed by cardio-vascular arrest.” Nilofar Ahanger’s “probable cause of death may be neurogenic shock,” the doctors said.

However, the report made it clear that the “post-mortem could not be done completely because of the hostile environment. ” Given that “various aspects of [the] post-mortem remained unexplored, we could not arrive at the definite conclusion.”

Later, on June 8, the Pulwama CMO provided another set of post-mortem reports prepared by the doctors operating under his charge. In their reports, the Pulwama team stated that Ms. Jan had suffered “sexual assault” before dying of “haemorrhagic shock due to bleeding from multiple injuries.” In Ms. Ahanger’s case, though, the doctors were more cautious, stating only that she had been involved in “sexual intercourse. ” Ms. Ahanger, the report concluded, was assumed to have died of neurogenic shock “because of the absence of any other sign of death.”

For the SIT, these findings are worthless. Investigators have no firm determination on how one of the victims died; no medical opinion on whether the injuries to Ms. Jan were caused by weapons or sharp stones in the river bed; no forensic finding on whether one or more perpetrators were involved in the rape — and all of the forensic evidence on record is vitiated by the doctors’ admissions that the post-mortem was incomplete and carried out under pressure.

But the Jammu and Kashmir government is still undecided on whether it will order the bodies to be exhumed for fresh autopsies —a move administrators fear could offend local sensitivities. The options, though, are limited, given that there is no worthwhile eyewitness evidence.

Local resident Ghulam Qadir Sheikh last saw the two women at about 7:30 p.m. Mr. Sheikh says the women told him they were planning to ford the Rambiara river, a fast-flowing mountain stream, as they were in a hurry to return home. No witnesses to the victims’ activities between 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. have been found, either, though they were sighted en route to the orchard.

Moreover, claims that the women contacted Mr. Ahanger by phone to say they were being followed by CRPF personnel have been debunked. Neither woman possessed a listed phone — and all callers to Mr. Ahanger that evening have been identified.

Claims that the bodies of the victims were smeared with sindoor — a red powder traditionally worn by married Hindu women —have also been debunked. In this version of events, the deaths were the result of a rape-murder carried out by a communally-driven psychopath; Kashmir Bar Association leader G.N. Shaheen attributed the killings to “Hindu fascists.” Photographs of the bodies taken at the time of the autopsy, however, do not show any suggestion of sindoor. Finally, some local residents claim to have seen a police vehicle in the stream, and alleged it was involved in kidnapping the women. No one, however, has come forward to either identify the vehicle or the personnel inside it.

“Based on what evidence we have,” a senior SIT official told The Hindu, “you could come to almost any conclusion you fancy. Take your pick.”

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