In Dhondipur and Minhajpur, the neighbourhoods near the spot where Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf were gunned down on live television last week, a sense of disquiet grows over the police response to the incident in Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh.
With the police allegedly confiscating digital video recorders from businesses in the vicinity, and making no attempt to seek police custody of the three accused until four days after the crime, the probe is under a cloud of suspicion in these two localities. The distrust is also reflected in featuring wild allegations that the shooters had come in a police vehicle wearing press cards.
The FIR was lodged at the Shahganj police station, 50 metres away from the Colvin hospital where the shootout took place. But the probe was handed over to two SITs – formed by the Uttar Pradesh government – two days after the incident.
‘Why do they have to take the DVR?’
“The incident happened at around 10.40 pm and just two hours later the police started taking away DVRs from the shops. Generally, police take a copy of the CCTV footage. Why do they have to take the DVR? Some people also mentioned that they saw shooters get down from the police vehicle. Do they want to eliminate evidence if something of that sort happened?” claimed a local resident of Dhondipur, adjacent to the hospital.
Asked about the confiscation of DVRs, Shahganj station house officer Ashwini Kumar Singh said, “I don’t know the procedure. Only an engineer can tell you about it.” Asked if it’s the norm, he said, “I can’t tell you. Only an engineer can tell you about this.”
SHO Singh was among five police officials, including two inspectors and two constables, who have now been suspended after the SIT questioned the police on Tuesday.
The police, meanwhile, have seized all DVRs – 24 recorders belonging to businesses – on Katju Road, from where the stretch begins to the hospital, Newslaundry has learnt. The road further leads to Shahganj police station, where it ends.
While legal experts said that DVRs can be taken away only after a set process, locals told Newslaundry that no such process was followed in the case of seizure of recorders near the hospital in Prayagraj.
A hotel manager said, “They came around 4 am and asked for the DVR. We requested them to take the footage but they said we need the entire DVR.”
A staffer at another outlet said, “We don’t have a DVR set now. It’s just the camera running. If something untoward takes place, what are we going to do?”
Delayed police custody?
The accused – Lavlesh Tiwari, 22, Arun Maurya, 18, and Mohit Singh alias Shani, 23 – have been lodged in Pratapgarh jail.
They were earlier under judicial custody as the police initially did not seek police custody hours after the incident on April 16. The district court granted four-day police custody only on Wednesday – four days after the crime – as the SIT sought 14-day custody. The suspects will be produced before court again on April 23.
The accused trio were initially supposed to go to Naini jail but were over safety reasons as Atiq’s son Ali and other gang members are lodged in Naini.
While some reports earlier claimed that these suspects had come to the hospital on motorcycles, it was later found that the two-wheelers only belonged to relatives of patients at the hospital. The suspects had reportedly come to the spot posing as media personnel, with a microphone ID of ‘NCR News’.
Fear behind low turnout at burial?
While a section of the media asserted that the low turnout at the Ahmed brothers’ burial indicated the lack of popular support for gangster-turned-politician Atiq, local residents claimed it was because of fear of the authorities.
“Police were noting down details of people who came there. Most of them were relatives. People were scared to go there as they feared the police would question them. If this was a normal funeral, at least four lakh would have attended,” claimed a Prayagraj resident privy to the funeral.
All the shops in the area are now open, but before the restrictions on mobile internet and assemblies – imposed in the wake of the shootout – were lifted, there was a sense of unease in Dhondipur and Minhajpur over two days. “We have not opened the shop fully since the incident. People themselves have not opened their shops,” said a shopkeeper sitting inside his half-shuttered shop two days after the shootout, pointing to an “atmosphere of fear”.
The first SIT probing the case is headed by Prayagraj Additional DCP Satish Chandra. The second three-member team, headed by the Prayagraj Additional DGP, is supervising the Chandra-led SIT.
Phone calls to Chandra remained unanswered. This report will be updated if a response is received.
Newslaundry also reached out to ACP Satyendra Tiwari, who is part of the SIT, but he refused to comment on the allegations.
Meanwhile, Nihal Singh Rathod, a Nagpur-based high court lawyer, said police can take away the DVR only after a set procedure. “It should have been done in the presence of two respectable persons of the locality. A memorandum has to be drawn of the seizure and a copy of the memorandum has to be given to the person from whom it has been seized. They have to seize it through a cyber expert. They also have to obtain a 65 B certificate which means the person in charge of the DVR will say that it was functioning properly and is not malfunctioning.
“They have to make sure that integrity of the material has to be maintained. Without following the procedures, it not only loses its evidentiary value but also raises suspicion.”
Days before the shootout, Atiq and his family had a threat to their life in several letters and petitions before court. The Supreme Court is set to hear a petition seeking an independent probe into the killings on April 24.