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.

Gosia Wozniacka/AP
In this, Sunday, June 10 photo, an unidentified woman (r.) delivers flowers while classmates and neighbors gather in front of the Selma, Calif., house where a father had killed not just his family but himself, too. Avtar Singh, the father, was also a former Indian army officer wanted by authorities in his homeland for murder in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Fresno County Sheriff's Office/AP
Avtar Singh.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Asked if it is usual for such cases to go on for five years, she responded: “Removal cases are reviewed on a case-by-case basis and timeframe.”

In recent years, the US has been courting India after weak relations during the cold war. The US has been encouraging India to deepen its involvement in Afghanistan and with the navies on China’s periphery. In 2011, the US ambassador to India visited Kashmir but did not meet with Kashmiri separatist leaders, a suggestion at least to some that the US was willing to stay quiet on Kashmir for the good of broader US-India relations.

The US government also remained quiet in 2011 when Singh was not extradited but remained on US soil. A call to the US State Department Monday was not returned.

A low-profile life in California

After talking with Dyck, I drove by Singh’s house on Pine Street and also by his previous house on McCall Avenue. They were quiet neighborhoods, past endless vineyards and peach orchards.

Singh changed houses often enough that neither his neighbors nor the Sikh religious leaders knew much about the family. Harry Gill, president of the local Punjabi organization, knew only that the family kept a low profile.

“Not many people knew him. He didn’t tell anybody who he is or where he came from,” he told the Associated Press after the killings.

I was also asking around about Singh from journalists who had reported his domestic violence story in 2011, and had asked a Fresno-based journalist to arrange an interview for me with Singh, if possible. I was reluctant to meet Singh myself because I somehow knew he wouldn’t talk to me after finding out that I was Kashmiri.

Word had reached Singh that a Kashmiri reporter was inquiring about him and had come seeking an interview. He called me that evening. It was a calm voice, speaking in steady English, and inquired if I was the Kashmiri who was looking for him. I said yes. He asked if I was in Fresno. I lied that I was coming tomorrow. And then he shouted, using expletives.

“You think this is your father’s Kashmir. Do you have any idea where you are coming? You have such guts that you have come from Kashmir. Just set your foot in Selma and I will shoot you. I will kill you,” he yelled, jumping between native Punjabi and Hindi as he got more upset.

I asked if he knew he was threatening with death a reporter who only wanted an interview. He continued making threats, and then hung up.

A restraining order

The next morning, the Selma police called me to say that Singh had filed a complaint and got a restraining order against me that prohibited me from going close to his house, his office, or him and his family.

When I read the news of killings in Selma two days ago, I was shocked. The first thing I remembered was the long email Singh’s wife had sent to me in 2011 after I had written a story about Singh’s past in Kashmir and the need for his extradition.

She had threatened to sue my magazine and me if we didn’t apologize in the next issue. She also wrote that her husband was a soldier who had bled for his country, and had never, and would never, spill an innocent man’s blood.

Had Singh been extradited and made to face the legal system, it would have been a lifesaver for the 10 families in Kashmir who accuse Singh of killing their loved ones. It also, most likely, would have been a lifesaver for Singh’s wife and two of his children killed Saturday. A third child was badly injured but remains alive in a hospital.

“It is an unfortunate end. Not justice in any sense of the word,” says Hafizullah Mir, Andrabi’s lawyer. “Avtar Singh should have faced the court, and we should have heard his side of the story, too, and the side of the victims and then the court.”

* Ben Arnoldy contributed to this report from Boston.

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