The death of a young Kashmiri man occurred in police custody at a time when the government of India has imposed restrictions and a communication blackout in the region since August 5.
Handwara, Indian-administered Kashmir — At dawn on September 3, the Indian police raided the house of Zareena Begum in north Kashmir's Handwara district and arrested her 24-year-old son Riyaz Ahmad Thickrey, a daily wage labourer.
Begum, who's partially blind, couldn't fathom the arrest, which looked like a sudden abduction. Far away in the remote forests of Handwara, 96 km away from Srinagar city, Begum's mud hut is perched on a low-lying hill. For the next few hours, she roamed from terrain to terrain, calling her son's name, hoping that he may return soon.
Riyaz, according to a police spokesperson, was involved in "theft and a "timber-related issue," citing the violation of the forest act. As Kashmir is going through a communication blackout since August 5, the family could not immediately break the news of Riyaz's arrest to their relatives. After a few hours, with the sun up, his younger brother Shakeel Thickrey walked a couple of miles to inform his maternal uncle Jamal-ud-Din Shabangi about Riyaz's detention.
Shabangi advised him to “go to the police station and take a few clothes and a packet of cigarettes for Riyaz.”
A few hours later, Shakeel and Begum visited Riyaz in the lock-up. He told Begum that he could have won his freedom if the police booked him for violating the forest laws but sees himself imprisoned for a long haul since he has been "framed" in a militancy-related incident.
Unable to comprehend what her son had done — all she knew was that prior to his arrest someone had reported him to the police for felling one or two trees — she returned home along with her younger son Shakeel.
But on September 4 at midnight, the police picked up Riyaz's uncle Shabangi from his home. Once they reached the police station, Shabangi enquired about Riyaz.
“They said he [Riyaz] is in the toilet,” Shabangi told TRT World. The toilet, he said, was in front of the police lock-up.
As Shabangi opened the toilet door, he was startled to see Riyaz lying face down on the floor, completely motionless. The police told him that Riyaz had hung himself to death in the toilet and it was a case of suicide. Terrified at the sight, he looked for traces of blood and found none on the spot.
Although the police maintain that their "preliminary investigation" suggests that Riyaz committed suicide, the family cries foul, and counters the claim saying he's been murdered in police custody.
The police sent Riyaz's body for post-mortem. A court inquiry was initiated and on the morning of September 5, the body was returned to the family.
“We haven't received the report of his post-mortem yet," Shabangi told TRT World on September 6.
While bathing the corpse, the mournful relatives and neighbours examined it carefully.
Mohammad Ramzan Dhobi, 30, a baker from neighboring village Hiral, said, "It didn’t look like suicide because his skull was wounded and his nose also bled."
Seeing the wounds, the family's hunch that Riyaz was killed in police custody felt real. They refused to believe the police's version of events. Instead of burying the dead, they took the body to Qalamabad, where Riyaz was kept in detention, to protest and demand justice.
“If he really committed suicide, the police has to prove that and explain the circumstances,” said Dhobi. “Instead, they [the police] summoned some respected elderly people of this area for what looks like a cover-up.”
Dhobi said the protest was largely peaceful but some young protesters couldn't hold their anger and pelted the police with stones. In retaliation, the police hit them with batons and fired tear gas.
The police exerted more force using the infamous shotgun-pellets that have blinded and even killed many Kashmiris in the last five years.
Except for Shabangi, who sat next to the shrouded corpse, everyone else ran here and there to avoid teargas and pellet firing. But he soon blacked out.
“The last thing I remember is a policeman hitting my head with his baton,” said Shabangi. “I fell unconscious.”
Dhobi, the baker, said the police detained him for a few hours. "At least six people were injured in the incident," he said.
Dhobi feels that many village elders are slowly distancing themselves from the case after some of them were summoned by the police. Though he supports the idea of seeking justice through India's legal system and taking the police to court, he's aware of the harrowing journey — how such cases drag on in courts for years and barely make any difference.
Dhobi, the Thickrey family and others in the neighbourhood are aware that several previous probes into chilling human rights abuses have never translated into justice in Kashmir.
Last March, a 30-year-old school principal — Rizwan Asad Pandit from south Kashmir’s Pulwama district — was found dead in police custody. Pandit was also arrested from home in a police raid. In their defence, the police issued the following statement: “In pursuance of a militancy case investigation, one suspect Rizwan Pandit of Awantipora was in police custody. The said person died in police custody.”
A magisterial inquiry was ordered to investigate the death but there haven’t been any updates as yet. The initial findings in the case revealed that Rizwan died because of the “extravasation of blood” — caused by multiple internal injuries. This report affirmed people's doubts that it was a custodial killing. Rizwan’s students marched in south Kashmir with placards reading, “Justice For Rizwan Sir.”
The last three decades of the Kashmir conflict — rooted in the 1947 Partition of the sub-continent — are deeply stained with incidents of extrajudicial killings, detentions without trials, forced disappearances and staged encounters, in which unarmed civilians are killed and passed off as militants for awards and medals.
According to the region's prominent human rights organization, the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), most of the probes ordered to investigate 108 cases of human rights abuse since 2008 — including nine custodial killings — have failed to initiate even a single prosecution and the families still await justice.