A crack police team that tracked down a group of men accused of the horrific rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl may face charges themselves after they were accused of torturing key witnesses.

The Special Investigation Team of the Jammu and Kashmir Police was widely applauded for persisting with inquiries in the nomadic Muslim Bakerwal community in Kathua city despite pressure to drop the case.

But three key witnesses, Sahil Sharma, Sachin Sharma and Neeraj Sharma, have filed a petition in the Jammu High Court seeking leave to take action against the police team, which was headed by Ramesh Kumar Jalla, Senior Superintendent of the Police Crime Branch.

In their petition, which was seen by Asia Times, the witnesses call for a First Information Report to be lodged “against the delinquent officers” for “torturing and harassing the petitioners to manufacture false evidence against the accused”.

They have also sought compensation of Rs 5 million (US$72,830) each for “physical and mental agony and loss of studies and future prospects to the petitioners”.

“The petitioners face imminent threat [sic] to their life at the hands of Crime Branch of Jammu and Kashmir,” the petition states. Police were also accused of using derogatory language: “Take these buggers away or I will slap them so much that they will learn a lesson of life.”

The High Court has directed the Crime Branch to file the objections, with the case listed for a hearing on August 29.

The girl was found dead in January, about a week after she went missing, with her family claiming her body bore marks of violence.  

Suspicions that the crime was perpetrated to drive the Muslim community off land eyed by Hindu villagers living nearby were confirmed after charges were laid by the police team

Suspicions that the crime was perpetrated to drive the Muslim community off land eyed by Hindu villagers living nearby were confirmed after charges were laid by the police team.

But the arrests of the alleged rapists triggered a big protest rally, spearheaded by a Hindu group demanding their release, which further polarised the two communities and heavily politicized the case.

Ramesh Kumar Jalla is widely admired as one of the most principled officials in the state’s police force, after a career spanning more than three decades. Jalla and his team completed their investigation and submitted a charge sheet in court 10 days before their deadline.

Their efforts were praised across the world, but at home they faced protests from a powerful lobby of lawmakers from the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads the national government. The lawmakers claimed the accused were victims of political pressure.

The petition has sparked demands for a probe into the handling of the case, but the investigators say the “trio [of witnesses] was never detained but only questioned” during their inquiries.

Sources said the police had received a copy of the petition and were likely to fight it, arguing that the petitioners were resorting to “acts that intimidate the investigative team and [could] derail the probe”.

In a further twist, Bakerwal activist and advocate Talib Hussain, who is seeking justice for the little girl’s family, has been arrested and charged with the attempted rape of his sister-in-law.

Hussain was previously accused of domestic violence by his wife, but the case did not proceed at the time. The Bakerwal community claims that the police who arrested Hussain were led by an official close to BJP lawmaker Chaudhary Lal Singh, who has spearheaded protests in support of the alleged rapists.

In a further twist, Bakerwal activist and advocate Talib Hussain, who is seeking justice for the little girl’s family, has been arrested and charged with the attempted rape of his sister-in-law

Senior lawyer AK Sawhney, the main counsel for the men accused of killing the girl, sounded satisfied with the latest developments, including the arrest of Hussain. He expressed hope in media interviews that the police investigators would soon be charged.

Interestingly, Sawhney’s son Assem, who previously worked with his father on the case, was recently appointed Deputy Advocate General in Jammu and Kashmir by Governor NN Vohra after the state alliance between the People’s Democratic Party and the BJP fell apart.

Even during the alliance, the BJP looked to be divided on the case. From the very beginning, party lawmakers Chaudhary Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga attended rallies in support of the accused men; Singh later openly sided with them, which cost him his chair in the council of ministers, headed by the then state chief minister Mehbooba Mufti. Singh continues to support the alleged rapists.

The charge sheet contends that four policemen and a retired government official were involved in the girl’s gang-rape and murder, It alleges that the former official masterminded the attack.

According to the charge sheet, the attack was aimed at forcing the Bakerwals to flee the area, which is dominated by Hindus. Police said the child was drugged and raped numerous times inside a local temple after alleged mastermind Sanji Ram performed “rituals.” One of the accused men was allegedly “invited” to come from Uttar Pradesh state to “satisfy his lust”, while some local police officers were also involved.

SSP Jalla and his team could not be contacted for comment by Asia Times. However, a senior official in the Crime Branch acknowledged that they had received a copy of the petition.