December 15, 2010

"...I recited verses from the Quran loudly. Then he opened fire"

On December 8, 1995, Zafar Mehraj, a veteran Kashmiri journalist, was shot and critically injured as he returned from an interview with Koko Parray, the head of the state-sponsored paramilitary group Ikhwan-ul Muslimoon, at Parray's headquarters in Hajan, a small town fifty kilometers from Srinagar. Mehraj, forty-three, was working for Zee television, an independent television corporation. He had previously been threatened by both the security forces, who suspected him because of his ties to militant group and his travel in Pakistan,and some militant groups who resented his contacts with Indian officials. Although the identity of the gunmen who shot him may never be known, the evidence strongly suggests the involvement of state-sponsored militia forces.

The interview with Koko Parray had originally been scheduled for November 26, but Parray would not meet with them then and told them to return on December 8. That day the Huriyat had called a general strike, but the press was free to travel. During the interview Parray met with one of his men for fifteen minutes. After the interview, the journalists declined lunch and left at 12:45 pm When they reached the village of Shaltang, nine kilometers north of Srinagar, they saw a cream colored Ambassador car with its hood up and a man looking inside. As they drove by, the man held up an AK-47 rifle and ordered the journalists to stop. With the man were two other men, all wearing scarves covering their faces and carrying AK-47s. One of them approached the front seat and asked, “What are you doing?” When told that they were journalists, he said, "You were meeting with that bastard, Koko Parray, bloody informer. We are from Hezb-ul Mujahidin." Then the two men went to the back seat window and asked, "You are Zafar Mehraj?" After Mehraj had identified himself, they asked him who he had been to see. When he said he had interviewed Koko Parray, the men ordered him to come with him. Mehraj did not move, so the man pulled him out forcibly.

When one of the other journalists tried to get out, and the same man pointed his AK-47 and said, "If you come out, I'll shoot you. You can move from here after one hour." He was speaking with an unusual accent; he was not from Srinagar. The men put Mehraj in the Ambassador car and drove away. Mehraj described what happened next:

They pushed me into a cab and took my wristwatch and cash, about Rs. 2-3000. [US $57-85] It was snowing hard. They drove for a while. Then at some point they said, "We are with Parray. Are you a journalist?" I said that I was. Then they said, "Oh , we thought you belonged to Jamaat-e Islami. We're sorry. We will let you go." I told them to stop and let me go, but they said, "No we'll leave you where you'll get transport." After that they removed their kerchiefs. At some point I noticed a minibus behind our taxi. The car stopped. The Matador minibus stopped on the other side of the road. They told me that the minibus contained their own "boys" and said they were going to Srinagar and could take me home. They told me to get down from the taxi. I did and as I walked across the road from the taxi to the bus, one of the boys from the bus, who was standing on the road, shouted at me, “Hey! Where are you going?” I turned and saw him take out his Kalashnikov to fire at me. I could see him shivering - he was young, in his early teens. I recited verses from the Quran loudly. Then he opened fire.

Three bullets hit Mehraj. One caused a superficial wound; one entered his left upper back and exited the right upper back; one entered his left upper stomach and exited his right upper stomach. Two or three minutes after Mehraj had fallen to the ground, he heard the taxi and minibus leave together. He tried to wave down passing vehicles, but several passed him before a truck finally stopped. The driver told him that he could not risk his life by helping him, but if Mehraj could climb into the back of the truck by himself, the driver would take him to a place where he could get a lift to a hospital. Mehraj climbed into the truck, and the driver drove approximately ten kilometers to a small market town where Mehraj saw a police constable. Mehraj got out of the truck and told the constable that he had been shot. The constable told him to take a motorcycle taxi to the hospital.

I asked two or three drivers to take me to the hospital but they all refused. Finally I begged a driver on the other side of the road. I said, I have old parents and one young child. Please help me. He told me, "Don't make any noise. Get inside calmly." He took me to Srinagar SMHS hospital, not by the main road but by the back roads. I walked into the emergency room.

Mehraj's transverse colon had been shattered, and he had suffered multiple small intestine injuries. He stayed at the SMHS hospital in Srinagar for five days and was then transferred to an army hospital for two days because the authorities told him that the militants were roaming around SHMS freely. In fact, at the time that Mehraj was being treated there, the SMHS hospital was being patrolled by Ikhwan forces. On December 15, he was transferred to the All-India Institute for Medical Sciences in New Delhi.

After Mehraj had been abducted, the journalists who were with him waited in the car for ten minutes. During that time, two boys came by on their way to a nearby mosque; they were about twelve and sixteen years old.

They spoke Kashmiri. They asked why our friend had been kidnaped. When we said we don't know, they said they were from Hezb-ul Mujahidin. They both laughed and said, "Come on - Hezb-ul Mujahidin can't come here. There have been no militants here for six months. Those guys were Ikhwan - Ikhwan controls this area. Then they walked on to the mosque.

Shortly after that the journalists told the driver to go to Srinagar.

They had driven two kilometers from the spot where Mehraj was taken and arrived at the Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT) crossing - a major industrial area. Seeing open shops, one of the journalists decided to stop and ask if any of the shop owners had seen the kidnapers car - a cream-colored Ambassador without license plates. One of shop owners said that ten minutes earlier he had seen a car matching the description headed toward Srinagar. As the journalist walked out of the shop, he saw the kidnapper's car and the kidnaper who had done the talking during the incident. He told the driver to follow the car, which was headed from Srinagar toward Baramulla.

The journalists followed the car for five or six kilometers, when the kidnapers car stopped. The journalists parked fifty meters behind them. The kidnaper came up to the car and said, "I told you to wait an hour. Why are you chasing us?"

When the driver asked, "What have we done?" the kidnapper struck him in the face. When one of the journalists got out of the car, the kidnapper said, "Look, bastard, the army is coming. Go away."

At that moment, four army trucks filled with soldiers drove down the road - the national highway - from Baramulla toward Srinagar. The trucks passed right by them without stopping even though the kidnaper was standing in the middle of the road with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, and the two other kidnapers were standing near their car with AK-47s clearly visible in their hands.

At that point, the journalist got back in the car. He told Human Rights Watch/Asia, "I realized that they were renegades, so we drove away to Srinagar."

Four or five days after the kidnaping, a correspondent for the Kashmir Times received a call from a man who identified himself as Ikhwan-ul Muslimoon, and said that the correspondent must come to Sonwar, an Ikhwan camp two kilometers from Srinagar, and that if he did not, "We'll do the same thing to you that we did to Zafar Mehraj." The correspondent did not go; he left Srinagar for Delhi.

On May 6, the Home Ministry informed ASIA WATCH that Mehraj had been returning from an interview with “the chief of a militant outfit,” and that while the incident was still under police investigation, it was “believed that [Mehraj] has been the victim of inter gang rivalry.”(the phrase “intergang rivalry” is frequently used by the government to downplay abuses by state-sponsored militias.)