Disillusioned with the slow process of investigation in her teenage brother’s killing during the Kashmir unrest of 2010, Urzeba Qayoom Bhat says that her family’s efforts to seek justice seem to be going in vain as the chargesheet is yet to be filed as the FIR was only registered in 2018 – three years ago – after years of trying.
Her brother, Umar Qayoom Bhat, 17, a Class 11 student, was detained on August 20, 2010, following stone-pelting in Srinagar’s Soura area. When he was released on bail, he was vomiting blood and complaining of chest pain. He was shifted to the nearby SKIMS hospital – a government facility and Kashmir’s largest tertiary care hospital – where he died on August 25, 2010.
The lone brother among sisters, his death came as a shock to the family. Over the past many years, Urzeba has committed herself to the task of seeking justice for her brother’s killing. Besides, accompanying her father to the courts, she has also created a Facebook page where she posts reminders about the death of her brother.
On August 25, 11 years after the incident, she stood at Srinagar’s Press Enclave, along with her father, holding a handwritten placard demanding that a chargesheet be filed. The placard read:
“Failure of Justice System in Kashmir Valley. It took us eight years to register an FIR. Question to PM Narendra Modi about the new Kashmir in 2019. I always hope justice will come soon but in the end, a question always arises in my mind when will that day come.”
As she exhorted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ensure justice in ‘new Kashmir’, her brother, she recalls, was among more than 120 people killed in the summer of 2010 when clashes broke out across the erstwhile state following a fake encounter in north Kashmir’s Machil area.
A few months before Umar’s death, on June 11, another teenager, Tufail Ashraf Mattoo, a Class 12 student, was also killed after the police allegedly fired a tear gas canister at him from close range. His killing snowballed and triggered protests and Srinagar became the epicentre for many months.
Urzeba recalls that on Friday, August 20, 2010, in the month of Ramadan, Umar, 17, had gone to offer prayers. He had been fasting.
“He died because he was ruthlessly tortured by police,” she asserts.
The summer of 2010
After finishing Friday prayers, protests had started in the area. To foil the protests, the police started chasing protestors to disperse the mob. The police caught Umar as he was passing by, and beat him before detaining him, his family said.
The harsh reality soon descended on the family when they found a single slipper lying on the street which they believed belonged to Umar. Soon after, his father, Abdul Qayoom Bhat, went to a nearby police station at Soura, to ascertain the whereabouts of his son. He saw his son lying on a floor of a cell, pleading that he be taken to a doctor.
“I am not being able to get up or walk,” his son had told him. Despite repeated requests to shift his son to a hospital which was just a stone’s throw away, she alleges that their request was turned down by the police.
In the evening, when his father went with milk and bananas to help his detained son break his fast, he saw blood oozing from his mouth. Umar kept repeating his request to be taken to a doctor, Urzeba said.
“On August 21, 2010, though Umar had got bail from a local court around 1 pm, he was only released at 7 pm from the Soura police station lock-up,” she said.
Four days after he was released from custody, on August 25, 2010, Umar succumbed to injuries at the hospital as his internal organs had been “damaged after the police beat him during detention”, his sister asserts.
As per the hospital records, a copy of which is with LiveWire, he succumbed due to “respiratory hypertension with severely deranged blood gases, diffuse intrapulmonary hemorrhage and blunt trauma on chest”..
However, his sister believes that hospital authorities were complicit with the police in hiding the truth as during crucial emergency hours, they kept the family in the dark about the internal damage to his organs. “Initially, at the hospital, the doctors said he was fine and discharged him. The next day, when his condition worsened, we rushed him to the hospital again after which he was put on ventilator,” said his sister.
His killing triggered a wave of protests in Kashmir. As the protests subsided, the family’s slow and silent struggle to get justice started.
‘He was beaten mercilessly’
A daily wager, Abdul Qayoom Bhat lost his only son among three daughters. Undaunted, he continued to pursue justice along with his daughter. Besides the expenses of the legal process and the quagmire it entailed, Urzeba says he lost many days of bread and butter to pursue the case.
In 2011, the family had moved an application before the court seeking an FIR into his death wherein they had mentioned that Qayoom was “arrested by the personnel of Soura police station and was beaten mercilessly”.
From 2011 to 2018, they struggled to get the FIR registered. “It took us eight long years to get an FIR lodged,” she said. In 2018, local court in Srinagar directed the Soura police station to lodge an FIR in the custodial killing.
In March 2018, the family hired lawyer Babar Qadri – who was later killed by two gunmen on September 24, 2020 – and within three hearings, an FIR was lodged she said. On September 9, 2018, an FIR into Umar’s death was filed at the Soura police station, on the directions of the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM), under FIR No. 97 of 2018 under Section 302 RPC.
“The police were given 42 days to file a chargesheet, but nearly three years have passed since the FIR was filed on the directions of the CJM… the police has yet to submit a chargesheet in the case,” Urzeba said.
A never-ending cycle
Custodial torture during detention and investigation is a long-standing problem in Kashmir, with a 2019 report by research and advocacy organisations stating that 70% of the 432 survivors of torture they studied, occurring between 1990 and 2017, were civilians. These survivors had been stripped, beaten, electrocuted, forcibly deprived of sleep, suspended from the ceiling and more. Police or magisterial investigations into these cases are rare.
“I am fighting for everyone and not just my brother. What happened with us can happen with anyone,” she said. “We cannot even afford a lawyer and need support. I am looking for a lawyer at the moment,” she said.
A postgraduate in social work, she says that as a girl it is difficult to fight. She faces criticism and threats from many unknown people online who say that her family wants money and not justice. But she alleges that the family was offered money previously by the police to give up their fight for justice, but that they did not relent.
“It is because of my father I go on. He is the source of my strength,” she said.
Khalid Bashir Gura is a Kashmir-based journalist working with Kashmir Life and is a media scholar at the University of Kashmir. He tweets @khalid_gura.
All images have been provided by the author.
Featured image credit: Syed Ahmad Rufai