From Kashmir to California: in the footsteps of a wanted killer
Journalist Zahid Rafiq tells how he tried to reach Avtar Singh, a former Indian military man living outside Fresno with a dark past in Kashmir. On Saturday, Mr. Singh killed his family and himself.
Selma, Calif. and Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir
A former Indian Army major placed a call Saturday morning to police outside Fresno, Calif., to inform them that he had murdered four people. By the time police arrived at the nearby scene, Avtar Singh had killed not just his family but himself, too.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Nearly two months prior, Mr. Singh had called the same Selma Country police for the last time to complain against media who wouldn’t leave him alone. I was that reporter.
I am a Kashmiri journalist studying at the University of California, Berkeley. Mr. Singh had been discovered last year to be living in Selma, where he ran his own trucking company. I wanted to interview this man, who was notorious back home after a judicial inquiry accused him of murdering a prominent human rights activist.
Like so much from the Kashmir conflict of the 1990s – of my childhood – the case remained unresolved, and the pain of victims left to fester.
After decades of mostly nonviolent resistance to Indian rule, Kashmiri separatists and Pakistani militants rose up with guns in 1989. India cracked down with a massive counterinsurgency that continues today, more than a decade after quashing the armed uprising. Government figures say at least 47,000 people have died in the conflict and thousands remain missing; other estimates are much higher.
Atrocities committed by Indian forces during the conflict have rarely if ever been punished. Singh’s was the rare case that made it to court in Kashmir, but he then fled the country. The magistrate put out a warrant over Interpol, and in 2011, Selma police alerted India’s Interpol bureau that they had their man.
But Singh was never extradited. In an age when the reach of international justice is growing, Singh’s case highlights how much influence international relations and national politics can still warp the process.
“It shows the ongoing hurdles that have to be overcome,” says Matt Eisenbrandt, legal director for the Canadian Centre for International Justice. He tried for a time to help locate Singh when he was missing. (Correction: The original article misstated Mr. Eisenbrandt's current affiliation.)
“Just because a perfectly innocent human rights lawyer is murdered doesn’t mean that you always bring the bad guys to account. You still have to deal with politics, both domestically and internationally,” he says.
Why I started writing about Singh
I first heard about Singh after I became a reporter in Kashmir in 2007. Like many reporters in the disputed region, I wrote about him and the struggle of the families of his victims for elusive justice.
Singh was wanted for the kidnapping and murder of human rights activist Jaleel Andrabi in 1996. Months before his death, Mr. Andrabi had addressed a UN session in Geneva about human rights violations by India in Kashmir.
On the evening of March 8, 1996, Andrabi was driving home with his wife when he was stopped and taken away by Army personnel who were apparently waiting for him.
Twenty days later, police asked Andrabi’s younger brother to identify a body recovered from a jute sack in the Jhelum River. It was Andrabi: his hands tied behind his back, his eyes gouged out.