Killed, Buried and Vanished: Custodial death of Islamul Hoque Choudhury

He barely manages to walk. His physical structure is so weak and fragile that it may collapse at any moment. A cultivator having a small plot of land and part time wage labourer, he crossed 75 years of his life and so far succeeded to provide his family members the minimum requirements for keeping them alive. He is a successful fighter so far fight for livelihood is concerned as per the standard applicable in this part of the planet. But on the other front he is a soldier who lost many battles. He could not save his 23 year old son who was killed in a staged encounter on 20 May, 2000 at Panichowki under Sonai police station in the district of Cachar of the Indian state of Assam. Then he started another kind of fight, of which he has no training and knowledge, the fight for justice for his slain son. His body may be slander and fragile but his determination and belief in the justice system is rock hard. For more than 8 years he has been fighting single handed without any apparent result and is still optimistic.

It is this optimism which made him the other day to call on me and share his grief. He also shared with me all the documents and information he could gather regarding the encounter of his son. This account is on the basis of these documents and information.

The elderly man is known as Haji Sarif Uddin Choudhury and is a resident of village Dhanehori under Sonai police station in the district of Cachar, Assam. Islamul Hoque Choudhury was his son who used to help his father in cultivation and wanted to start his own business howsoever small may be.

On 19 June 2000 Islamul Hoque Choudhury was at Banskandi bazaar and the neighbourhood area searching for the motor cycle of his brother which was lost the day before. He went there after receiving information that the cycle had been seen in this area. After a day long search he could see two men riding the lost cycle came to the bazaar. When he asked them where they found this cycle the bikers started to punch him. They also raised hue and cry shouting alarm of pick-pocket. People in the marked gathered, caught Islamul and searched him but found nothing except 20 rupees.

In the meantime some police men from Banskandi police out post came in a jeep and arrested him at 8pm. Another person named Ripon Laskar arrested by police was in the jeep. Later, an ezahar was filed in the Bnaskandi police out post under Lakhipur police station signed by Foizur Rahman and Salim of Banskandi. Both these complainants claimed in the ezahar that Islamul Hoque and Ripon Laskar were trying to kidnap them from Silghat ferry, a nearby river ferry and that the two arrested persons had links with the Peoples United Liberation Force (PULF), an extremist organisation allegedly based in Manipur.

According to Haji Sarif Uddin Choudhury, during the interrogation both the arrested persons were subjected to severe torture and Ripon Laskar succumbed to the resulting injuries in the night itself on the spot. Higher police officers were informed of the incident and it was decided that an encounter must be staged to avoid public wrath. For the purpose a team was formed headed by Mr. Hareswar Brahma, the Sub-Divisional Police Officer (SDPO) of Lakhipur Sub-Division, Mr. Choudhury claims.

In the dead of night some police personnel from Banskandi out post, Officer In-charge (O/C) of Lakhipur police station and the said SDPO went to Dhanehori taking with them Islamul Hoque and the body of Ripon Laskar in a jeep. There they purportedly searched the house of one Sukkur Uddin but nothing objectionable could be recovered from his house. Thereafter they rushed to Panichowki, a village in the foot of the Bhuvan Hills about 50 kilo metres away from Silchar, the district head quarter. On the way to Panichowki they met another police team belonging to Sonai police station, which were patrolling during night hours. The Lakhipur police team took Sonai police party with them and proceeded to Panichowki rest house, a house maintained and used by Forest Department, where they reached at about 3pm on 20 June 2000.

Some villagers of Panichowki state that on 20 June 2000 in the early morning a few gun fires were heard and when they came out of their houses at the sound they saw a police party in and around of Panichowki rest house. One of them, namely Karunamoy Das, by profession a pan-collector, (pan is a leaf used with betel nuts found in the hilly jungles) states that at the time of firing he was very near to the place of occurrence. He noticed the incident and as per his statement when police were beating the arrested person he was begging to the police for his life by requesting them to hand over to Jail instead of beating and torturing. But the police did not give any heed and lastly they shot him dead.

The next day both the dead bodies were sent to Sonai police station and after conducting post mortem examination at Silchar Medical College and Hospital (SMCH), Silchar the officer in the police station handed over the dead bodies to the relatives. The relatives of Islamul and his local people buried his body on 21 June 2000 observing religious rites.

The local media carried the police story for a few days with usual journalistic exaggerations that police arrested two high profile extremists belonging to PULF from Banskandi daily market at 8pm on 19 June 2000 and brought them to the police station for further interrogation. The I/C (In-Charge) of Banskandi out-post conveyed the information to the SDPO, Lakhipur who along with O/C, Lakhipur took part in the interrogation. On the basis of interrogation and with a view to unearthing further facts they along with arrested persons proceeded to Dhanehori and thereafter to Panichowki. At Dhanehori the police searched the house of one Sukkur Uddin on the basis of the information extracted from the arrested persons but they recovered nothing objectionable from his house. Thereafter they rushed to Panichowki for the same purpose along with another police team from Sonai police station. Both the police teams reached Panichowki rest house at about 3pm on 20 June 2000. The police party asked both the arrested persons to head them towards the hideouts of the PULF extremists. As they were passing through the premises of the Panichowki rest house all on a sudden firing from the nearby jungle began and both arrested persons who were leading them died due to cross firing. Police further add in their statements that had they not been trained up for self defence they would have been killed due to extremist’s firing. According to police the following two reasons were responsible for the death of two arrested persons:

1. They were leading the police party and naturally they were going in advance.

2. They lacked the training of self protection.

But the lone soldier of the cause of justice Haji Sarif Uddin Choudhury started his fight. He succeeded to compel the District Magistrate of Cachar to order a magisterial inquiry into the incident after 3 months on 19 September 2000. The report of the inquiry never saw the light of the day. Nevertheless, Barak Human Rights Protection Committee (BHRPC) a human rights organisation working in Assam, managed to get access to an unauthenticated copy of the report of the inquiry. Although there are many questions remained unanswered in the report the Magistrate found that ‘firing took place behind the rest house where both the accused succumbed to the injuries’. He also finds “reason to believe that there was no firing from jungle or extremist side and firing which took place at Panichowki in the early morning of 20-6-2k was only from police side.” The report goes on: “During the whole operation of the nights of 19-6-2k and 20-6-2k the Sr. Police Officer, i. e., SDPO, Lakhipur was present along with other police personnel who could have guided his party to avert from such killing.”

The Magistrate concludes: “I, therefore, find Sri Hareshwar Brahma, SDPO, Lakhipur to have committed guilt and excess during the operation.”

But no prosecution initiated against the SDPO and his team.

A complaint was also filed with the Assam Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and accordingly a case was registered vide. AHRC Case No. 3451 of 2001. The AHRC after about six years found that a prima facie case of human rights violations exists and observed that “it was not only a fake encounter but there was also gross negligence on the part of the police for not giving full protection to both the deceased persons” and awarded an interim compensation of rupees fifty thousand by its judgment and order dated 14-06-2006. But the judgment is mysteriously silent on the question of prosecution of the violators. Whereas under section 18 (a) (ii) the AHRC is empowered to recommend to the concerned government or authority to initiate proceedings for prosecution against the concerned person or persons where the inquiry discloses the commission of violation of human rights or negligence in the prevention of violation of human rights or abetment thereof by a public servant.

But the most mysterious is the strength of Haji Sarif Uddin Choudhury with which he declares “age or death can’t take me away before justice for my son is ensured by way of prosecution and due punishment to his murderers. Without prosecution of the accused a compensation of rupees fifty thousand is nothing but an insult to the soul of my son and the society.” Police kill people and a meager amount of money from the public fund is given. What type of justice is this?”, he asks.

“If you want to prevent the killing of your son by the police it must be ensured that the persons who already committed such offences must be brought to justice”, said Neharul Ahmed Mazumder, Secretary General of BHRPC. He also states that “a regime of de facto impunity is carefully maintained in North Eastern region including Assam for which it is almost impossible to get justice for the victims and prevent repetitions of such extra legal killings. We need to fight unitedly to break the regime.”

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