JAMMU AND KASHMIR
Did forces loyal to the Army kill foreign hostages in’95?
A new book claims that tourists kidnapped to seek the release of Jaish Muhammad chief Masood Azhar were murdered by Indian Army loyalists
When six foreign tourists were abducted by Al Faran in July 1995 to seek the release of Jaish Muhammad chief Masood Azhar and Omar Sheikh and subsequently four of them were killed—one escaped—it marked a new deadly turn in the armed separatist campaign in Kashmir. Now a human rights group, International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice (IPTK), has filed a petition in the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) seeking fresh probe into the kidnappings after a recent book on Kashmir claimed that the tourists were killed by forces loyal to the Indian Army. SHRC has listed the case for April 17.
The Meadow, a book written by investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, says that a pro-government renegade Ghulam Nabi Mir alias Alpha, or Azad Nabi who used to be based in Shalipora near Anantnag in Kashmir, had “bought” the four hostages from Al Faran and held them for months before killing them. The four persons, the book says, had been killed in the remote twin villages of Mati and Gawran, an approximately five hour drive from Anantnag town, on 24 December 1995. The book claims the authorities had the knowledge of the location of the hostages but didn’t want to rescue them.
The six kidnapped tourists were John Childs of Simsbury, Connecticut, USA, Dirk Hasert of Bad Langensalza, Germany, Don Hutchings of Spokane, Washington State, USA, Keith Mangan of Teesside, Middlesborough, England, Hans Christian Ostrø of Oslo, Norway, and Paul Wells of Blackburn, Lancashire, England. John Childs escaped on July 8, 2012. They were kidnapped by Javid Ahmed Bhat alias “Sikander”, Abdul Hamid al-Turki alias “the Turk”, Nabeel Ghazni, Abu Khalifa, and others.
However, while John Childs was able to escape on 8 July 1995, Ostro was beheaded and his body was found later in August.
Now, IPTK wants a comprehensive investigation to be ordered into the “kidnappings and associated events and killings” and prosecutions launched against all those responsible, including at the highest levels of the army, police, and government, for the crimes committed. “An inquiry be conducted as to why no action was taken on various points noted above, despite the authorities having knowledge of the location of the hostages, and then subsequently the burial site of the hostages, to ascertain the level of institutional culpability,” the petition says.
The petition, which quotes passages from the book, says Al Faran was ready to give up hostages for a ransom of Rs 1 crore but the deal was said to have fallen through at the last minute. “Inspector General Rajinder Tikoo, the Crime Branch Chief, and negotiator with Al Faran, reached a deal for the release of the victims, with the person negotiating on behalf of Al Faran [who referred to himself as “Jehangir”] on 17 September 1995 for Rs 1 crore. But, by 18 September 1995, as a result of a news leaked to the media, the deal fell through,” the petition says.
However, subsequently in an operation on 4 December 1995 at village Dabran in Anantnag district, the Rashtriya Rifles gunned down three kidnappers—Nabeel Ghazni, Abu Khalifa, and Abdul Hamid al-Turki—and captured two local militants. Sikander (the militant commander heading the kidnap operation) himself died on 17 February 1996 in a bomb blast that was claimed as accidental by the army, says the petition.
On 3 June 1996, based on information that the four kidnapped persons had been shot dead on 13 December 1995 at Magam, a search for the bodies of the victims was conducted at the village. The bodies were not found. The fate of the four kidnapped persons has not been conclusively ascertained to date. “The family members of the victims of the July 1995 kidnapping have spent close to 17 years with the anguish of not knowing the fate of their disappeared family members,” the petition says.
The book, the petition says, reveals a secret ceasefire agreement between the pro-government insurgent Ghulam Nabi Mir alias Alpha and the main abductor Sikander. Prior to kidnappings Mir was told by his handlers in STF (State Task Force), army and intelligence to pass on weapons and explosives to Sikander and his partners.
“This was part of a larger plan that used Javid Ahmed Bhat [alias “Sikander”] and his partners against the Hizbul Mujahideen. This was the reason why the pro-government militiamen in the area, who had knowledge of the whereabouts of the kidnappers and the hostages, had not intervened,” the petition quoting the book says. “The STF, backed by a faction within the Indian Intelligence Agencies, and with the knowledge of counter-insurgency specialists of the Rashtriya Rifles had known about the deal from the very beginning, and in fact, the idea for such a ceasefire agreement had come from the security forces”.
The petition says that Al Faran handed over hostages to Mir alias Alpha on 1 December 1995 for Rs 4 lakh. The petition says that the Crime Branch investigations into the incident were closed without being presented before a competent court. “The authorities, who had knowledge at various times of the location of the kidnapped persons, and ultimately of their burial site, did not intervene for political reasons,” the petition says.
Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.