‘It was cold-blooded murder’: Anguished families protest deaths of Kashmir civilians ‘used as human shields’

Families of some of those killed in the Hyderpora encounter say the slain men had no links to terrorists as authorities promise justice

Shweta Sharma
Thursday 18 November 2021 12:09
<p>Teenage daughter of Mohammad Altaf Bhat weeps after her father was killed in Srinagar on 15 November by security forces along with three others</p>

Teenage daughter of Mohammad Altaf Bhat weeps after her father was killed in Srinagar on 15 November by security forces along with three others

The families of some of the people killed during a shoot-out in Jammu and Kashmir on Monday have alleged that civilians were used as human shields in the operation and demanded that the bodies of their loved ones be returned so they can get a proper burial.

Videos and photos of the grieving family members staging sit-in protests as the temperature dipped in the restive Indian federal territory have led to a public outcry over accountability of security personnel in the heavily militarised region.

The Jammu and Kashmir police said they killed a terrorist and his associate, while two civilians were also killed in the cross-fire. The families of three of the slain people claimed they were killed in cold blood and had no links to terrorism.

The protest was forcibly broken by the police on Wednesday night and the family members were taken in police vans to be later sent home, one of the protesters told The Independent.

On Monday evening, an “encounter” broke out between alleged terrorists and security forces in Kashmir’s Hyderpora area, 5.5km from the Srinagar city airport, after “specific inputs” regarding the presence of terrorists in a shopping complex, the police said in a statement.

After an hours-long search operation, the police said two suspected militants, including a foreign terrorist identified as Haider, and a local named Amir Ahmad Mangrey, were killed.

Two others, Altaf Ahmad Bhat, 48, who was owner of the shopping complex, and Mudair Gul, 40, were killed in the crossfire after security officials asked them to join the search party, police said.

The police said Gul was a “terrorist associate” based on their source and digital evidence.

Saima Bhat, the niece of shopping complex owner Bhat, told The Independent that the family members, along with his two teenage daughters and a minor son, heard the gunshots that killed him and will move court if his body was not returned.

“His two daughters were waiting for their father to return with pastries but now they are crying inconsolably, demanding their father’s body,” Ms Bhat said.

The families have pleaded the authorities for the bodies in order to give them a proper burial in their ancestral graveyards.

“It’s getting scary here with each passing day. We are feeling helpless, nobody has come to us from the administration. It’s a long fight ahead but I have promised his daughters to get their dead father home,” she said, breaking down.

Explaining the unfolding events of Monday, Ms Bhat said: “I got to know that a cordon and search operation had started in the commercial complex around 5.30 in the evening and I desperately started calling my uncle, my cousin and my brother who work nearby that complex.”

“When nobody answered the call, we started panicking. But after one hour their phones were switched off,” said Ms Bhat, who is a journalist.

“My father and some family members went to the encounter site but they were not allowed to go near the complex. As we frantically tried ways and means to know his whereabouts we heard three gunshots. It was bone-chilling,” she narrated.

“My cousin and brother who were eyewitnesses told me that my uncle was used as a human shield and killed in cold-blooded murder,” Ms Bhat said.

“Twice my uncle was asked to accompany the military, saying they wanted to search the building. First time he went up, they all came down and said there was nothing. After half an hour he was again sent up, nothing happened but when he went for the third time, three gunshots were heard inside the building,” she said.

Inspector general of police Vijay Kumar said at a press conference on Tuesday: “The building owner Altaf was killed in crossfire along with the OGW (over ground worker) who provided his rented place to foreign terrorists for using it as a hideout.”

Gul was a tenant in the building, he said. Mr Kumar said the two men were called to accompany the police in the search party, but the terrorists “started firing indiscriminately.”

“In the initial exchange of fire, both the individuals accompanying the search party received critical gunshot injuries and succumbed to their injuries,” he said in a statement, adding that two terrorists were killed during the operation.

All four men killed in the operation were buried in a secret graveyard in Kupwara district – in line with the government’s new practice of not returning bodies back to the families for funeral for fear of sparking civil unrest. Often authorities hold secret burial of suspected militants in remote locations of the hilly region.

Mohammad Latief Magrey, father of Amir Mangrey, 24, who was killed in the encounter and suspected to be a “hybrid militant” demanded evidence from police of his son’s involvement.

Mr Mangrey told The Independent: “Amir was innocent. He was not a militant.”

Mr Mangrey is known to have killed a militant with a single throw of a stone, for which he received a government medal. “How can my son be a terrorist,” he asked.

A hybrid terrorist is a person not listed as one but who is radicalised enough to carry out a terror strike while living a civilian life.

“I would have myself handed him over to forces if he would have been a militant. I want an investigation into this so-called encounter and urge the government to hand us the dead body of my son. Those who killed my innocent son should be punished,” he added.

“Show her the face of her dead father,” Ms Humaira Gul, the widow of Gul, said during the protest, accompanied by her 18-months-old daughter and other relatives.

“I demand justice. Show me the proof if he was an OTW (over the ground worker). He was not into any illegal work. Give me the proof of his involvement in terrorism then first shoot me and then my daughter.”

The demonstrations have led to a public outcry for justice. Former chief minister Omar Abdullah demanded an “impartial and credible inquiry.” He said “forcible” burying of bodies was a “crime against humanity”.

Srinagar mayorJunaid Azim Mattu said: “I feel disappointed by the invective of deafening silence by the powers that be.”

A magisterial investigation has been ordered by the Jammu and Kashmir administration into the killings, ensuring there is no injustice to the people, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha’s office said on Thursday.

This is not the first time an incident of this sort has happened. Earlier this year,The Independent spoke to the families of three young men killed in an encounter in Srinagar’s Lawaypora area. The families, who were not handed the bodies of their loved ones, claimed the men were also killed in a staged shootout.

More than 30 people have been killed in recent weeks in Muslim-majority Kashmir, including Hindus and Sikhs and migrant workers, according to reports.

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