SC seeks answers from Yogi govt over brazen killing of Atiq, brother

The Court has sought a “comprehensive affidavit” from the UP government on the steps taken to enquire into the killing of gangster-politician Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf when they were being taken to a hospital for medical check-up in police custody,  writes Mudit Mathur

The Supreme Court on Friday, 28 April, sought a “comprehensive affidavit” from the Uttar Pradesh government within three weeks on the steps taken to enquire into the killing of gangster-politician Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf Ahmed which took place on April 15 at Prayagraj when they were being taken to a hospital for medical check-up in police custody. The bench has also sought information on the inquiry into the encounter killings of the other accused in the Umesh Pal murder case, including Atiq Ahmed’s son Asad.

The Court has also directed the State to inform about the steps taken in pursuance of the report of the judicial enquiry commission led by Justice BS Chauhan which probed into the Vikas Dubey encounter killing of 2020.

The bench of Justices S Ravindra Bhat and Dipankar Datta was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) plea by Advocate Vishal Tiwari seeking the constitution of an independent expert committee under the chairmanship of a former SC judge to probe the killings of both the brothers, which was caught on live television, and also 183 other encounter killings in the State of UP since 2017. Tiwari also questioned Justice Chauhan’s report which gave UP Police a clean chit in the Vikas Dubey encounter case.

During the hearing, the bench asked the UP Government how the killers got the knowledge that Ahmed brothers were being taken to hospital? The bench also asked why the police made Ahmed brothers walk till the hospital entry gate, instead of taking them till there in the ambulance?

Senior Advocate Mukul Rohatgi, on behalf of the UP government, passionately urged the bench to not issue notice, saying that the state government had been probing into the two deaths. “This man and his entire family are embroiled in heinous crimes for the last 30 years. It is probable that the two were killed by those whose wrath they had encountered. This is one of the angles we are looking into,” Rohatgi told the bench.

“Everyone saw the killings on the television. The killers came in the guise of news photographers. They had passes, were carrying cameras, and were even carrying identity cards that were later found to be fake. There were 50 people there and more people outside. This is how they managed to kill Atiq and Ashraf,” the senior counsel explained.

“How did they know?” Justice Bhat asked.

“Because of this court’s judgement, any accused in police custody must be taken for a medical examination every two days. These assailants have been going three days in a row,” Rohatgi responded.

Justice Datta asked, “Mr Rohatgi, why were they not taken to the hospital gate in an ambulance? Why were they made to walk and paraded?”

The senior counsel replied, “That distance is very short, Your Lordship.” Justice Bhat said, “Place whatever material you have. We will look into this.”

The PIL questioned the custodial killing of jailed gangster-turned-politician Atiq Ahmed and his brother, Ashraf late on Saturday, April 15, by three assailants while being taken for medical examination at Moti Lal Nehru Medical College during police remand under the escort of the Uttar Pradesh Police. His murder came just only two weeks after the Supreme Court rejected his plea in which he had expressed apprehensions about his safety.

A bench headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud took note of the submissions of advocate Vishal Tiwari who mentioned the matter of Atiq Ahmed’s murder seeking an urgent hearing. The plea has also sought an inquiry into the 183 encounters that have taken place in Uttar Pradesh since 2017. “The petition could not be listed on Monday, 24th April, due to non-availability of judges due to their ailments and other reasons,” the bench clarified on being mentioned.

Last week, Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf were shot dead at point-blank range by three men posing as journalists in the middle of a media interaction, while police were escorting them to a medical college in Prayagraj for a mandatory medical check-up. They were speaking to reporters walking on foot towards the hospital emergency from its gate in handcuffs with his brother. Three young boys, posing as journalists, immediately surrendered on the spot, chanting “Jai Shri Ram”(Hail Lord Ram) slogans after shooting them dead at point-blank range.

“Atiq and Ashraf were in handcuffs,” recalled journalist Vikas Srivastava from ANI (Asian News International), who was on the spot along with other local journalists. “The police vehicles had stopped very near the gate of the medical centre and as the two men stepped out of a vehicle, we approached them for their bytes. While Ahmad merely completed his sentence before he was killed, Ashraf, who had been trying to speak, was shot before he could say much. Ahmad and Ashraf fell on the ground and amid chaotic atmosphere all the journalists dispersed to have a safe cover,” he described.

“Amid this, my cameraman, Shailesh Pandey, went missing. I found the camera and mike lying on the ground and tried to capture what was going on, but I did not know how to operate the camera professionally. Later, I shot the scene with my mobile phone,” Vikas revealed to media colleagues.

Police claim the three attackers – identified as Mohit alias Sunny Puraney (23), Lavlesh Tiwari (22) and Arun Kumar Maurya (18) – “wanted to finish the gang of Atiq and Ashraf and become famous”. After four days of police remand, all the three accused were sent back to the jail on Sunday, 23th April. “We are verifying information collected from the three accused,” sources in the Special Investigation Team (SIT) said.

Atiq (60), was a six-term legislator, including one term in the Lok Sabha. He successfully contested five state assembly elections from Allahabad (now called Prayagraj) West constituency – thrice as an independent candidate, once as a Samajwadi Party leader, and once as a candidate of his own Apna Dal party. The sixth time, Atiq contested the 2004 general elections on a Samajwadi Party ticket and became a member of parliament.

Atiq happens to be a notorious gangster with more than 100 criminal cases registered against him, including those of land grabbing, murders, kidnapping and extortion. He was convicted and jailed in 2019 for kidnapping a lawyer, Umesh Pal, who had testified against him in a 2005 murder case of a local legislator Raju Pal. His underworld connections in organised crime syndicate are under investigation of all the premier investigative agencies of Uttar Pradesh and central government including Income Tax and Enforcement Directorate.

The PIL plea, filed by Advocate Vishal Tiwari before apex court alleged that though the private assailants were arrested immediately by the UP Police, however, during the commission of the offence, there was no protection and retaliation from police’s end which raises a question of  transparency on the functioning of the police and proves that the incident was a pre-planned attack.

“The police, when becomes ‘Dare Devils,’ then the entire Rule of law collapses and generates the fear in the mind of people against police which is very dangerous for the democracy and this also results into further crime…In a democratic society the police cannot be allowed to become a mode of delivering final justice or to become a punishing authority. The power of punishment is only vested in the Judiciary,” the PIL emphasised.

The PIL pleaded that if any accused, who is under the police custody, gets killed, then it raises doubt on the police efficiency and also raises doubt and smells conspiracy. In this regard, referring to Ahmed brothers killings, it further states that there might be two conclusions: that either the crime was committed by some other gangsters or it was a conspiracy involving the system.

“…in a democracy the state should be a welfare state and not a police state, the function of police is to detect and investigate the crime and bring him to the Court of Law of a country. But in recent times our nation is witnessing the police encounters and deaths in the police custody which prima facie do not appear to be justified and if such practices remain unchecked and if such police officials remain unpunished then it is an alarming situation for the coming time,” the PIL asserted.

The PIL urged the apex court to issue of guidelines/directions to safeguard the Rule of law by constituting an Independent Expert Committee under the Chairmanship of Former Supreme Court Justice to inquire into the 183 encounters which had occurred since 2017 as stated by Uttar Pradesh Special Director General of Police (Law and Order) and also to inquire into the police custody murder of gangster turned politician Atiq and Ashraf.

Since 2017, when saffron clad Yogi Adityanath –led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government assumed power in UP, the state has witnessed 10,900 police encounters, in which at least 183 people died and close to 5,000 others were injured, according to police data.

The series of events unfolded on April 12 when Atiq Ahmed, was taken from Sabarmati jail in Ahmedabad to UP in the Umesh Pal murder case. On April 13, Asad Ahmed and his aide Ghulam who had been wanted in the Umesh Pal murder case were killed in a police “encounter” in Jhansi by a team of STF. On April 15, he and his brother were shot dead in Prayagraj.

The UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in his first reaction to the killing of gangster-politician Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf in live telecast, on April 18, claimed that, “Now, no mafia or professional criminal can terrorise any businessman in UP. UP guarantees you the best law and order situation.” “The previous government run by Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh was known for communal riots. The situation has now changed,” he claimed.

Shortly after mafia-turned-politician Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf were shot dead in Prayagraj, former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav on 15thApril, said crime has reached its peak in the state and the morale of the “criminals” has grown by leaps and bounds.“Crime has reached its peak in UP and the morale of the criminals is high. When someone can be killed openly despite being surrounded by a security cordon, one can imagine the state of the general public. Due to this (alleged encounter killings), an ambience of fear is being created among the public. It seems that some people are deliberately creating such an ambience,” tweeted Akhilesh Yadav in Hindi.

The former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and BSP chief, Mayawati, said the killing of gangster-turned-politician Atiq Ahmad and his brother Ashraf in police custody in Prayagraj raises serious questions over the style of functioning of the Uttar Pradesh government. It would be better if the Supreme Court takes cognisance of this “extremely serious and worrisome” incident, which is being discussed across the country,” she suggested.

In a series of tweets, she said, “Now, instead of  ‘rule of law by law’ in Uttar Pradesh, how appropriate is it that it becomes ‘encounter Pradesh’? Something to think about.”  “The shooting down of Atiq Ahmad, who was brought from Gujarat jail and his brother Ashraf, who was brought from Bareilly jail last night in Prayagraj, in police custody, is just like the heinous Umesh Pal murder case. It raises serious questions on the law and order of the UP government, and its style of functioning,” she added in her twit’s series.

Reacting over the incident, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said, “I am shocked by the brazen anarchy and total collapse of law and order in Uttar Pradesh. It is shameful that perpetrators are now taking the law in their own hands, unfazed by the police and media presence. Such unlawful acts have no place in our constitutional democracy.” She accused BJP for leading the nation towards anarchy and lawlessness! The assassination of criminal-turned-politician Atiq Ahmed in Prayagraj in the presence of the police should be a wakeup call for us.” “Justice evades BJP-ruled India!” she remarked.

Rajya Sabha MP and former Congress leader Kapil Sibal has said that two murders took place on Saturday night in Prayagraj – One of Atiq and his brother, and the other of the rule of law. Saying that there was nothing one could do about the first, as it had already happened, Sibal said the second one was more worrying. “If people can be killed in police custody, then obviously the situation is way too concerning. I have seen it. This is not happening for the first time; I saw it happen in Tihar Jail just the other day. If people are not safe in police custody, where are they safe?” Mr Sibal asked.

The UP government had announced the formation of a three-member judicial inquiry committee headed by Allahabad High Court judge (retired) Arvind Kumar Tripathi to probe the killing of Atiq Ahmed and his brother Khalid Azim alias Ashraf. Two other members of the committee include retired judge Brijesh Kumar Soni and former DGP, Subesh Kumar Singh. It has also constituted a two-member judicial commission comprising retired high court judge Rajeev Lochan Mehrotra and retired DGP Vijay Kumar Gupta to probe into the killing of Atiq Ahmed’s son Asad and his aide Ghulam in an encounter in Jhansi on April 13.

Meanwhile, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has taken cognizance of complaints regarding the killings of Atiq and Ashraf Ahmed. It issued notices to the Director General of Police, Uttar Pradesh and the Commissioner of Police, Prayagraj and asked them to submit a detailed report on the entire incident within four weeks.