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.
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The Special Investigation Team formed to investigate the case – at the order of the high court in Kashmir – reported that everything pointed to Maj. Avtar Singh of the 35 Rashtriya Rifles unit as the person who had committed the murder. It also found that to eliminate the trail, Singh had murdered four Kashmiri counterinsurgents who had witnessed the killing.Skip to next paragraph
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Kashmiri police also claim to have found Singh’s involvement in five other cases of murder, including that of a young man whom he suspected of having an affair with his sister-in-law and an old Sikh tailor whom his wife’s family might have owed some money.
Soon after the death of Andrabi, Singh left Kashmir and the country, even though the court had placed restrictions against his flight abroad.
The victims’ families allege that India’s Home Ministry and External Affairs Ministry smuggled Singh out to save him from legal procedures where he might have given away the names of other officers involved in the case, and also to avoid setting a precedent for Indian soldiers accused of human right violations to appear before the law.
“If the extradition does go through, I will open my mouth,” Singh said in an interview last year with the Indian magazine Open. “I will not keep quiet.”
JP Singh, an official with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), said he could not comment on the case. Multiple efforts to reach the Home Ministry failed. Neither ministry appears to be talking to the media about the case since Saturday’s killings.
Even before I started graduate school in Berkeley, I checked how far Selma was from campus. I wanted to speak with the man who has claimed that he was being blamed to save other culprits. I also wanted to see him, because his only two available pictures were so radically different that it was hard to believe it is the same man.
Heading to Selma
On March 26, I went to Selma.
There I met police chief Myron Dyck. In 2011, his officers arrested Singh in a domestic abuse case filed by his wife. Singh was now on a 36-month probation, Mr. Dyck said, but otherwise a free man.
I asked about why Singh was never extradited. Dyck said that Singh’s home country never wanted him back.
“When we arrested him in 2011 and found that he was wanted on the Interpol list, we informed the Interpol Washington office and they asked us to hold him till they contacted their Indian counterparts,” Dyck said.
Interpol’s Washington office confirmed this. Interpol is a communications network, designed to pass messages between law enforcement agencies across international borders. Interpol Washington passed the message that Singh was in custody in Selma to the National Central Bureau of Interpol in India.
“Quite a few contacts were made, with little to no response,” says LaTonya Miller, a spokesman at Interpol Washington. “The Indian government has to initiate whatever extradition process needs to happen.”
But they did not.
Interpol in India confirmed they received the messages. “To avoid delay, we asked them to directly contact the MEA, who do the extradition,” said an Interpol official in India who refused to be named.
“We don’t get involved with governments. We deal with police-to-police only,” says Ms. Miller in Washington.
Back in Selma, Dyck said he waited for two days for word on what to do with Singh, but when Interpol Washington couldn’t get any response, “we had to release him,” he says.
Why no deportation proceedings?
The US had another option: deportation. According to Lori Haley, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswoman, Singh was arrested by ICE in July 2007 for unlawful presence in the US and placed in removal proceedings.
“At the time of his death, Mr. Singh was pending removal while the ongoing investigation into his case continued,” says Ms. Haley via email, referring to an investigation by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations unit.