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Police killings in Bombay mount _ along with doubts about legality

December 17, 1997

BOMBAY, India (AP) _ A crackdown on organized crime that has left at least 70 people dead this year has Indians debating whether police methods are a proper way to curb soaring crime rates or a poetic injustice.

All 70 of the men shot dead in ``police encounters″ through October were described as gangsters accused of serious crimes who resisted arrest. In 1996, 56 men were killed in similar circumstances; in 1995, just nine.

Police officials say a recent crime surge requires a firm response. But without trials, human rights lawyers question whether the police are targeting real criminals, covering up mistakes or acting on politicians’ orders to systematically get rid of rival gangsters.

Attorney Tajammul Hussain Sardar says rising crime is no reason to allow police to act as ``exterminators″ _ a term he used in a poem he wrote after taking on a client who was seriously injured by a policeman:

``They are accusers,

Judges too,

Also stunning exterminators,

With gun in hand of God.″

Despite Sardar’s poetic condemnation, and more traditional criticism from human rights groups, residents of India’s largest city and financial capital have little sympathy for the deaths of people blamed for Bombay’s climbing crime rate.

During the past year, several wealthy real estate developers and entertainment industry figures in Bombay have been gunned down in what police say were organized crime hits linked to extortion rackets. The number of narcotics seizures, counterfeit currency arrests and extortion threats have doubled.

``It’s not you and me who are being killed, but people with a shady past. The more people like that the police get rid of, the better,″ bank executive Sandeep Kadam said at a recent community forum on crime.

His colleague, Rupali Nanda, was one of the few to protest: ``The police cannot go around shooting people. Everyone has a right to trial.″

The criminal procedure code, which governs police conduct, grants immunity to an officer who kills someone who is armed or believed to be, and who has a serious criminal record.

``Swift action is called for when dealing with dangerous criminals. It is unreasonable to expect a police officer to react calmly,″ said Bombay Police Chief Ronald Mendonca. Another 226 gang members have been arrested without violence, he noted.

His deputy, Parvinder Pasricha, asks, ``Would you be happy if a policeman dies instead of a gangster? When the gangsters die, it is their bad luck. ... We have the right to defend ourselves.″

Amnesty International recently wrote to the government of Maharashtra, of which Bombay is the capital, expressing concern about police killings. Sangeeta Ahuja, a researcher for the London-based human rights group, said excessive force is becoming routine in the Bombay police force.

Human Rights Watch criticized Maharashtra Home Minister Gopinath Munde, the politician in charge of police, for the crime-fighting tactics.

Local human rights groups say politicians’ role may be even more sinister. They note that Shiv Sena _ a political party that also has been called a gang _ long has been accused of using organized crime leaders to threaten political enemies. For the past two years, Shiv Sena has been a part of the government, ruling with Munde’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

``This is an abuse of the state. The Shiv Sena happens to be in power so it is using state machinery to settle scores with other gangs,″ said P.A. Sebastian, a lawyer with the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights.

Munde denies his government condones extrajudicial killings by police.

Sardar’s client, Irfan Zaveri, was shot by an officer who intervened in an argument with men Zaveri said had been harassing his wife. Zaveri said he was unarmed; the officer who shot Zaveri twice testified he was wielding a knife. Zaveri is suing Bombay police for $1,200.

Zaveri said he believes that if he had died, the police would have painted him as yet another gang member shot while trying to escape.

Lawyers say that is what happened to Abu Sayama in August, a man police say was wanted in two murder cases and was shot and killed when he fired on officers. Sayama’s family says he was a peanut vendor with a passing resemblance to a criminal.

``Sayama was an ordinary man living in pitiable conditions and the police are just trying to paint him as a gang member,″ said Manubhai Vashi, a lawyer handling the family’s demand for compensation.

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