More than three weeks after the journalist was shot dead in Srinagar, the police are yet to nab the killers. Peerzada Ashiq reports on the investigation into the assassination
On the evening of June 15, five police officers were engaged in an animated discussion in a heavily wood-panelled room on the second floor of the U-shaped District Police Line in Srinagar. The meeting, chaired by a Deputy Inspector General (DIG) rank officer of a Special Investigation Team (SIT), didn’t yield much. “It’s a blind case,” sighed one of the officers.
Twenty-four hours had passed since Shujaat Bukhari, 50, editor-in-chief of Rising Kashmir, a Srinagar-based newspaper, was shot dead outside his office by unidentified gunmen. The assassins had wrong-footed the security network by choosing to carry out their execution in the busy Press Enclave of Lal Chowk, the city centre. The Rising Kashmir office is located inside a high-security residence-cum-office complex that is home to much of the local and international press in Srinagar.
The timing of the attack, too, seemed to have been well-thought-out, coming as it did on the eve of Id-ul-Fitr — “when security personnel tend to be a bit more relaxed as everyone goes into festive mode,” said a police official.
Most of the SIT members believe that the gunmen chose the spot with the intent of sending a bold message: “It was to communicate that militants can target anyone they like, and at a place of their choice, even if it’s in a high-security zone,” said a SIT official.
The Press Enclave has a police station less than 1 km away. The police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) patrol the area all day as the route is used by many VVIPs to reach the Civil Secretariat. The CRPF picket in the colony has more than eight men manning twin bunkers. Normally, the Crime Investigation Department (CID) and Special Branch (SB) personnel park their car at the entrance to Press Enclave. But on this particular day, they had left earlier than usual. The CRPF picket, too, had failed to spot the armed men.
Even the small tea-stall near Bukhari’s office, usually buzzing with activity, was on this day ‘shuttered’ by a cloth screen — it was discreetly serving non-fasting locals. Bukhari’s two special police officers (SPOs), Hamid Chaudhary and Mumtaz Awan, both 39, had also lowered their guard. Awan was carrying toys for his three children as an Id gift. There were hardly any witnesses around to identify the gunmen as people were rushing off to either mosques or indoors at the time of Iftar.
The attack took place between 7.15 and 7.20 p.m., when Bukhari stepped out after a brief conversation with the newspaper’s marketing manager Umar Farooq. “Please ensure that one more AC is installed soon for the newsroom staff on the fourth floor,” Bukhari had told Farooq, before heading to his car, parked barely 50 ft from the building’s entrance.
Probable sequence of events
When the SIT members recreated the crime scene, it brought to the fore some benumbing details. “It was an L-shaped ambush, which aimed to ensure that everyone in the SUV was killed,” said a SIT official. Elaborating on the L-shaped ambush, another SIT member said the guns were aimed at the vehicle from a 90 degree angle, from the front and from the side, and bullets were showered on the occupants from two directions simultaneously. The firing lasted less than a minute.
The SIT, after questioning pedestrians and local shopkeepers, came up with two possible scenarios of the attack. As per the first scenario, three gunmen on a blue bike arrived at the Press Enclave between 6.30 and 6.45 p.m. Around 7.15, one of them checked his mobile phone to match their photograph of Bukhari with the man walking towards an SUV, and signalled to his two accomplices. They waited till Bukhari was inside the vehicle before opening fire. “Three rifles may have been used but two were used to first kill the SPOs, who were seated in the front. Then one of the assassins pointed his rifle at Bukhari, who was seated at the back. He emptied the magazine on Bukhari and made sure that he was dead,” said a police officer. In the second scenario, all the three gunmen opened fire, two from the front and the main assassin from the side. The police sent 30 to 35 of the 60 cartridges recovered from the scene for forensic investigation, which confirmed that the bullets were fired from AK-47 and INSAS rifles.
Departure from the past
Bukhari’s assassination, involving the use of high-calibre automatic assault weapons, marks a departure from the past. In the high-profile assassinations of Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq in 1990 and Abdul Ghani Lone in 2002, and an abortive bid on Hurriyat leader Fazul Haq Qureshi in 2009, gunmen had used low-calibre pistols.
“The use of high-calibre automatic rifles and the ease with which the guns were emptied on the target points to the involvement of foreign militants. Only a highly trained and motivated gunman can do it. No local militant can do it in such a cold-blooded manner,” said a police officer. Bukhari’s body had received 16 bullets, mainly in the abdomen.
The SIT began its investigations by scanning CCTV footage. Four of the CCTV cameras installed by the police in and around Lal Chowk showed the gunmen on a bike, crossing the busy Jehangir Chowk to reach Regal Chowk, before taking the turn into Press Enclave.
The DIG and his team spent three days scanning over 48 hours of CCTV footage, which eventually yielded a clue: a wristwatch. “A Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant in our custody had told us about a consignment of Casio watches, fashioned like wristbands, that had been despatched for the commanders,” said the SIT official. The watch worn by the assassin seated in the middle on the bike seemed to match the description.
Based on this information, the police zeroed in on LeT militant Naveed Jutt alias Abu Hanzulla, who had escaped on February 6 from Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital.
All the CCTV footage had revealed the faces “but not fully”. One assassin was wearing a helmet, another was masked, and the third, seated between the other two, had his face obscured by the hand of his accomplice sitting behind. However, the motorbike could be seen taking Barbarshah Road towards the old city, after the attack. They probably spent the night in the old city before leaving for south Kashmir the next day, said the SIT official.
The police stumbled on another clue on June 16. A SIT official scanning WhatsApp groups spotted a video of the crime scene uploaded by a local. It showed a bearded, kurta-clad youth inspecting the bodies and even stealing the service pistol of one of the SPOs. When a special team raided the posh Kanitar locality in Hazratbal, a clean-shaven Zubair Qayoom, 29, greeted the police. “Qayoom was quick to admit that it was him in the video,” said the police. The pistol he had stolen was recovered from the back of a non-functional refrigerator. The cartridges were hidden in cigarette boxes. Qayoom had been under the police scanner for being a drug peddler. But the SIT could not establish any direct links between him and Bukhari’s assassination.
The police raided two more houses in central Kashmir. In one case, a phone conversation where the caller had told his friend, “Kaam ho gaya (the job is done)”, proved to be about a love affair. In the meantime, 1,800 motorbikes of the same brand, make and colour as the one used by the assassins were found be in active use in the Valley. Here, too, the SIT hit a dead end.
The executioners and the plotters
The SIT then split its work to focus on two different aspects of the case: the executioners and the plotters. More than 120 photographs of active militants were collected in an album for physical identification. The SIT visited areas where militants are known to be more active, such as Shopian and Kulgam, and spoke to detained militants. At least three detained militants and ‘overground workers’, or OGWs (the state’s term for civilians who assisted militants with logistics), confirmed that the biker seated in the middle was Jutt. But many of the others could not identify him.
Confused, the SIT decided to check the pictures shared on social media by Jutt and his supporters since his escape in February. Militants in Kashmir upload glamorous photographs of themselves on pro-militant Facebook pages in a bid to attract fresh recruits. These pictures led the investigating team to Azad Ahmad Malik alias Dada of south Kashmir’s Anantnag.
On December 12, 2016, Malik, as an OGW, was ferrying a group of militants in his car when he was intercepted by security agencies. The shoot-out that followed turned Malik from an OGW into a full-fledged militant. He shot into the limelight following his ‘great escape’ from the Kudwani encounter site on April 11, 2018. Malik had been surrounded from all sides during the encounter, which lasted an entire night. But he still managed to get away. His escape was recorded by cheering locals and the video went viral. “The episode turned Malik into a high-value asset in the eyes of the LeT, someone who could be tasked with special assignments, such as Bukhari’s assassination,” said the police.
Even as the police team was investigating, the pressure to show results was mounting. The SIT made a fresh plea to their seniors: “To go after the LeT militants and arrest a known face in the Kulgam-Shopian belt. That could help unravel the truth behind the Bukhari case.”
On June 24, security forces zeroed in on a group of LeT militants hiding in Chidder village of Kulgam’s Qaimoh area. In the encounter that followed, a LeT ‘divisional commander’, Shakoor Ahmad Dar of Devsar, was killed, along with one of his associates and a civilian. But the security forces managed to arrest a third militant.
The arrested militant helped in identifying the third assassin: Muzaffar Ahmad Bhat alias Talha, a resident of Sopat Tengpora in Kulgam. “Bhat was recruited by the LeT this year. He has no major militancy cases against him but was valued for his high degree of motivation. He was used to help identify Bukhari. He is the third person on the bike, the one wearing glasses,” said the SIT member.
Apart from these sketchy inputs, the killers’ identities could not be further corroborated by any conspirator or OGW directly involved in the case.
Is the blogger the mastermind?
With all the three assassins now identified — Malik, Jutt and Talha — the SIT now needed to figure out the mastermind. It focussed its energies on the blog, ‘Kashmirfight’, hosted by WordPress in the U.S. The anonymous blogger had written some scathing posts on Bukhari, describing him as “an Indian tout” as recently as in June, and had warned that “his days were numbered”.
Investigations revealed that Bukhari became the target of hateful blogs and widely circulated messages on WhatsApp immediately after his participation in a Dubai conference in August last year. Besides politicians, including Hurriyat and mainstream leaders, it had also been attended by Lt general (retired) Asad Durrani from Pakistan and Air Vice Marshal (retired) Kapil Kak from India. The SIT said that a “well-organised” campaign to malign Bukhari was unleashed on many social media platforms in January this year. “The ‘Kashmirfight’ blog vilified Bukhari and was intimidating at the same time,” said Inspector General of Police (IGP) S.P. Pani.
The police tapped all the telecom service providers in Jammu and Kashmir to track down the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses connected to the blog. “A common email address helped to establish that ‘Kashmirfight’ blog, the ‘Kadwa Sach Kashmir’ page on Facebook, and the ‘Ahmad Khalid’ Twitter handle were run from Pakistan,” noted the SIT.
The contents of this email address led them to a small-time pathology lab in the Parimpora-HMT belt in Srinagar. Here the SIT homed in on a man called Sheikh Sajjad Gul, whom IGP Pani termed as the “main conspirator and plotter.” Gul used to frequent this lab, and had even done a short course in pathology.
Piecing together Gul’s life, the SIT found that he was born in 1974 in the old city’s Shah Mohalla area of Nawa Bazar, and went to the prestigious National School in Srinagar’s Karan Nagar. Gul completed his BSc from Sri Pratap College in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk in 1996, and then obtained an MBA from the Asia Pacific Institute of Management, Bengaluru, graduating in 1999. Even as he took up short courses in computer networking and software, he “got in touch with people who had links with outfits such as Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba”.
In 2002, Gul was arrested in New Delhi on charges of being involved in a hawala racket. During his time in Tihar jail, he is said to have made the acquaintance of top LeT militants lodged there. Gul was shifted to the Srinagar Central Jail in 2005 and released in 2006. Gul was continuously on the police radar in 2016, after an intelligence intercept suggested that “he was to receive a pistol from across the Line of Control (LoC) for an unknown assignment”. And then, in a spectacular breach of security at the highest level, Gul managed to get a passport from a fake address in Jammu, obtained a visa for Pakistan, and crossed the Wagah border in March 2017. “He procured the passport fraudulently. We are investigating this aspect too,” said IGP Pani.
Gul’s successful bid to procure a passport is a major embarrassment for the security apparatus. When it comes to the issuing of passports, Kashmir has more stringent security checks than the rest of the country, with at least three agencies doing separate background checks. One of these three agencies is the Counter Insurgency Cell, whose sole responsibility is to uncover any militant links of the applicant or his relatives. Hundreds of applications are pending in the Srinagar Passport Office because some relative or family member had links with militants, and here someone like Gul managed to not only get a passport but also a visa to Pakistan.
The police pointed out that even though Gul’s Twitter handle and Facebook page have stopped functioning, his blog continues to post fresh content quite regularly. In one of his latest posts, the blogger has mocked the police by sharing the correspondence between the Jammu and Kashmir police and the Union Information and Technology Ministry on the subject of sourcing vital details about the blogger’s identity.
The SIT claimed that the blogger was in Pakistan and that it was none other than Gul. “Gul is a well read man and has good access to many circles, including the media, in Kashmir,” the investigators said. But not all police officers are convinced that the ‘Kashmirfight’ blogger and the mastermind of Bukhari’s execution are the same person.
“There are glaring loopholes in the investigation. No link whatsoever has been established between the assassins and the Pakistan-based Gul, described as the plotter. The police are yet to establish either on the technical front or through human intelligence a relation between the two,” said a police officer, who is not part of the investigation. “It’s baffling that Gul, who has been in Pakistan for more than a year now, is privy to all the latest developments taking place in Kashmir and immediately comments on it in his blog,” he added.
Meanwhile at Rising Kashmir, the editor’s room has remained locked since the assassination. The op-ed pages still run tributes to Bukhari penned by his colleagues and friends in Kashmir and abroad. The police’s narrative, however, has few takers at the office.
“Shujaat sahib never showed any anxiety regarding any threat to his life. In fact, I used to ask him to slow down as all the travel was taking a toll on his health. But he would not. His murder is one more in the long list of assassinations in Kashmir where the mystery only deepens. All have condemned it and refused any involvement. So, I am as clueless as anybody,” says Ayaz Hafiz, brother-in-law of Bukhari and also the managing editor of Rising Kashmir. “I have decided to dedicate myself to what Shujaat stood for. The newspaper was very dear to him. It will continue to speak truth to the power.”
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