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Botched forensics undermined Shopian probe

Praveen Swami

Ill-trained and under-equipped doctors were conducting the autopsy when they came under a mob attack

NEW DELHI: Forensic examiners who investigated the alleged rape and murder of two south Kashmir women made errors which could make it impossible to convict the perpetrators, a judicial probe has found.

For the most part, commentators have focussed on the Justice Muzaffar Jan Commission of Inquiry’s strictures against the Jammu and Kashmir Police for its failure, its poor management of the Shopian rape-murder investigation, which led to intense street violence in some parts of the State.

Jammu and Kashmir authorities have said they intend to prosecute at least four police officers for these failures. But evidence presented before the Jan Commission suggests such action will be of little use unless a disturbing gap in the police’s investigative capabilities is filled.

From the outset, the evidence shows, the Jammu and Kashmir Police investigation suffered the absence of competent and properly-equipped forensic experts, who are critical to providing investigations a sound scientific basis.

Inconclusive findings

Testimony presented before the Jan Commission shows police investigators were provided with inconclusive, even incoherent, forensic findings by Shopian and Pulwama-based doctors.

Dr. Bilal Ahmad, who conducted an initial autopsy on the victims, appeared to exclude violent assault or rape. Examining one victim, he observed, “brassiere and the pyjama were properly fixed and were in order.” Dr. Ahmad also recorded that there were “were no marks of violence on the labia majora and no marks of violence on the rectal side.” While there was a significant head injury, he stated that there were no marks to suggest strangulation or a struggle.

In the case of the second victim, Dr. Ahmad again found “no external injuries, scratches or superficial marks.” Her clothes, too, “were properly fixed and in order.”

Later, though, a second team of doctors determined that their examinations of one victim “make it clear that a sexual assault had been committed.” However, they also made a number of apparently contradictory statements. “There were,” the doctors stated, “no apparent injuries or mark[s] of violence on the private parts.” In addition, the “morphology of the private parts did not suggest that a gang rape had been committed.”

Bar finding that the victim, an unmarried teenager, had sex soon before her death, the second team offered no scientific evidence to support their determination of sexual assault.

Neither team of doctors could offer a cause of death for one victim; moreover, their assessments of the time of deaths of the two victims varied significantly.

Forensic medicine expert Farida Noor’s testimony to the Jan Commission threw up a long list of errors of practice and judgment. “For [determining] the exact cause of death,” Dr. Noor stated, “it is necessary that a complete autopsy should be done with opening of all cavities of the body along with [the] head.” Nor did the Shopian doctors record if the hymen of the teenage victim bore marks typical of assault. For some of these failures, she said, there was “no excuse.”

None of the doctors in Shopian or Pulwama, interestingly, was trained in forensic medicine.

In fairness to the Shopian doctors, though, they were forced to work in exceptionally difficult and dangerous circumstances.

In her testimony to the Jan Commission, Shopian District Hospital surgeon Bilques Jan stated that an “unruly mob attacked the post-mortem room” even as the autopsy was underway. Dr. Jan, fearing for her life, jumped out of the window and hid in the operating theatre. The angry mob marched away with the bodies on which she was supposed to have carried out a vaginal examination.

Later, after the bodies were recovered by local authorities, gynaecologist Nighat Shaheen was called in from Pulwama to assist in the autopsy. Among other things, she recorded that the forehead of one of the victims bore a wound that appeared to have been caused by a sharp weapon.

However, Dr. Shaheen lacked the key piece of equipment that could have helped make a definitive judgment on the issue: a microscope. There was no video-camera to record the autopsy; nor even, Dr. Shaheen said, “material like gloves, mask[s] [or] cotton.”

Incredibly, the forensic pathologists took only one vaginal swab from each victim, samples which were destroyed while conducting tests to determine the presence of semen in their bodies. This failure makes it impossible to match the semen recovered from the bodies of the victims against the DNA of any suspects who may be arrested in the future.

Jammu and Kashmir authorities have yet to agree to exhume the body of the victim who suffered a head injury, to see if it was the cause of her death — a recommendation made by Dr. Noor.

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