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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Faked Deaths Show Ills Of India's Police

(AP) As far as nearly everyone knew, Gurnam Singh Bandala was gunned down in a shootout with police 13 years ago during the waning days of an uprising by Sikh separatists.

That is, until Bandala turned up alive, living as a preacher outside this northern Indian city.

"It's the perfect cover, being dead," says Bandala, the classic image of a towering Sikh with his white robe, deep blue turban and long gray beard.

Authorities now believe an innocent farmer was deliberately killed by police so that they could present his body as Bandala's and collect a $60,000 bounty.

"I thought I was so lucky," Bandala told The Associated Press in an interview. But "there was no luck. There was murder."

Bandala's re-emergence is one of nearly a dozen similar cases reviewed by the AP that have surfaced recently in India. The faked police shootouts have shaken an already troubled justice system in a country that touts itself as a rights-respecting democracy where the rule of law prevails.

Former police officials and human rights activists say the fake encounters are the brutal result of a system dominated by poorly educated, badly trained and corruptible cops, dirty politicians and stagnated courts where justice, if it ever comes, can be delayed for years.

"Because cases take years to be settled, because witnesses don't show up, because bribes are paid, criminals get away. So the police resort to shortcuts," says Sankar Sen, a former policeman who's now a fellow at the Institute for Social Sciences in New Delhi.

The exact number of fake encounters is impossible to determine. Police officials acknowledge only a handful over the past two decades and say they are isolated cases.

But the former and current officers say the problem is more widespread, and rights activists estimated the number must be in the hundreds, if not thousands.

They point to the tens of thousands of people who have disappeared, many after being detained by police during one of the myriad insurgencies here in the last three decades. An estimated 3,000 people were lost without explanation during the Sikh uprising in Punjab in the 1980s and early 1990s. About 10,000 are missing in Kashmir, where an Islamic rebellion festers today.

In Punjab, the fight for a separate Sikh state left about 25,000 people dead, including 1,700 police. Bandala is one of three former separatist militants who were said to have been killed in shootouts but who recently turned up alive.

"Somebody was killed in their place," says Ranjan Lakhanpal, a human rights lawyer. "We believe there are many more."

In Kashmir, a Himalayan region wracked by an Islamic rebellion since 1989, police this year began investigating five cases, all involving security forces who may have killed innocents and claimed they were rebels to earn rewards.

And in Gujarat, a western state riven by tensions between Hindus and Muslims, three policemen and three senior officials have been arrested for their alleged role in the 2005 slaying of a Muslim couple. Authorities earlier had said the husband was part of a plot by Islamic militants to kill the state's top elected official, a Hindu nationalist.

However, the Kashmir and Gujarat probes are exceptions and most allegations never are fully checked, says Ajai Sahni, former chief of India's Intelligence Bureau, part of the country's law-enforcement apparatus. "They're the result of dogged investigations by good policemen. That rarely happens."

One reason few cases are investigated is that most Indians aren't interested. Wealthier Indians in particular have long accepted extrajudicial killings disguised as shootouts as the most expedient way to get rid of criminals.

There's even a reverential term for officers with the highest tallies: "encounter specialists."

"There is pressure from politicians, there is pressure from the public," says Sen, the former policeman. "They wat criminals eliminated, they cheer it."

Sen spent 35 years with the police, eventually running the National Police Academy before leaving the force to head the government's National Human Rights Commission.

He says that when he was a top officer years ago in the eastern state of Orissa, a politician, whom he won't name, told him to kill a troublesome bandit.

Sen says he refused, "but other policemen were more cooperative." The bandit was slain.

Police kill not only career criminals, but also stage shootouts to get promotions or rewards. That was the case with Bandala.

Bandala already was in hiding for a decade when he read, in July 1994, about his own death in a local newspaper. He worried at first, "then I realized the police wouldn't be chasing me anymore," he said.

At the same time, a woman who lived a few villages over would start looking for her husband, Sukhpal Singh.

According to court documents filed by Singh's family, police came to their home in August and picked up the farmer, then 26, for questioning.

"He disappeared like a ghost," says his widow, Dalbir Kaur. "We've never seen him again."

When Kaur and her mother-in-law went looking for Singh, the police who took him said he'd been transferred to another station. So they went there only to be told he'd been sent back to the first.

It went on and on. Months stretched into years. Singh's mother died and his family sold their small farm to pay for lawyers who are seeking $12,500 in a wrongful death suit.

Authorities have never told them what happened to Singh. But a senior Punjab police officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter remains sensitive, said authorities believe Singh was killed in Bandala's place. His body was presented as that of Bandala's and then cremated in accordance with Sikh custom.

Asked what happened to the two officers who were first credited with the killing _ and claimed the reward _ he said one, Jaspal Singh, a former deputy superintendent of police, is in jail, convicted of torturing and murdering a human rights activist. The other, Paramraj Singh Umrananagal, is now a senior Punjab police officer. He refused to speak about the case.

Bandala, meanwhile, was caught by police in 1998 and spent four years in prison on charges of carrying illegal weapons. He was convicted under his real name, but the public record _ which lists Bandala as deceased _ was never changed.

"Nobody likes to be embarrassed," the official said.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting about the Maoist guerrillas in India! Therefore, the CPC organizes terrorist groups in foreign countries.

12:08 PM  

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