SRINAGAR, India – Indian officials enabled an army officer accused of murder to avoid arrest for over a decade, allowing him to live openly in India and eventually in California where he killed his family then himself over the weekend, activists alleged Tuesday.
The rights activists didn't accuse any Indian officials by name, but said there was no way that Avtar Singh, an army major accused of killing a human rights lawyer in 1996 in the troubled Himalayan region of Kashmir, would have been able to live freely for so long if the Indian government had been trying to arrest him.
"The Indian establishment protected Major Avtar Singh at all levels," said Arshad Andrabi, the brother of the slain lawyer and himself a rights activist. "The government provided all sorts of immunity to this murderer all along."
But why would Indian officials help an accused murderer — or at least drag their feet in arresting him?
A little over a year ago, Singh himself had suggested an answer — that he knew too much — after he was detained in California when his wife accused him of trying to choke her. The arrest drew the attention of Indian authorities, but activists say India never made any moves to extradite him.
"If the extradition does go through, I will open my mouth," Singh said in an interview at the time with the Indian magazine Open. "I will not keep quiet."
Nearly two decades earlier, in the 1990s, Singh had been based in Kashmir during one of the bloodiest periods in the region's history, when Muslim separatists were ratcheting up attacks and India's military responded with crackdowns that included torture, kidnapping, extortion and murder. More than 68,000 people, mostly civilian, have been killed since 1989 in the cycle of uprisings and crackdowns.
An Indian police probe blamed Singh and his soldiers for the 1996 murder of human rights lawyer Jalil Andrabi, as well as the killings of six other Kashmiri men. Andrabi's body — he had been shot in the head, and his eyeballs had been gouged out — was found two weeks after he was dragged from his car by a group of Indian soldiers.
"The Indian State effectively allowed for Major Avtar Singh to escape the rule of law," said Khurram Parvez, of the prominent Kashmiri rights group The Coalition of Civil Society.
"Despite evidence to suggest the integral role of Major Avtar Singh in the cases against him, the manner in which he has been able to evade justice for these sixteen years suggests a larger institutional impunity at work."
The Indian government has not replied to numerous AP requests for comments since a SWAT team descended on Singh's house early Saturday morning in the farming town of Selma, where the family lived and where he ran a small trucking business.
Police say Singh had called them, saying he'd killed four people.
When police entered the home, they found the bodies of Singh, his wife and two of his children — a 3-year-old and a 15-year-old. His 17-year-old son was badly injured and remains hospitalized.
Singh lived openly in India for years after the charges against him were filed. An Indian reporter even interviewed him at an army barracks in 1998, when the police said they couldn't locate him. He is believed to have lived in Canada before moving to California.
Singh was apparently never arrested. India did not request Interpol to issue a so-called "red notice" on him until 2009. Those notices give member countries an alert that someone is wanted for arrest.
On Tuesday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lori Haley said Singh was arrested by investigators for unlawful presence in July 2007.
Haley said Singh was later released and placed in removal proceedings. She said at the time of his death, the investigation was continuing. Haley did not say whether U.S. officials knew of Singh's alleged crimes in India.
Even a former Indian judge acknowledged the case's troubled history.
Investigations of human rights violations are rare in Kashmir, where India's armed forces special powers act requires federal permission before police can prosecute army or paramilitary soldiers posted there.
The Singh case, though, was extensively investigated and charges were filed.
Bilal Nazki was a high court judge in 1997 when, as a result of the investigation, he ordered that Singh be arrested and that he not be allowed to leave the country.
"It was perhaps the only case which was thoroughly and honestly probed," said Nazki, who is now retired. "Still justice could not be done."
Tim Sullivan in New Delhi contributed to this report.