Sat, Feb 25, 2006 - Page 16 News List

India's `supercops' fall from grace

Police officers were once given carte blanche to mow down mobsters, but human rights activists are now calling the deaths extrajudicial executions

By Krittivas Mukherjee  /  MUMBAI , INDIA

Police authorities say that strong-arm tactics have paid off.

PHOTO: AP

For eight years, Daya Nayak killed with impunity -- sometimes with his pistol but often with an AK-47 automatic rifle -- as he bumped off people suspected to be gangsters or involved in acts of terrorism in Mumbai.

These days, the policeman just kills time.

Once the poster boy of Mumbai's police force and eulogized by Bollywood filmmakers, Nayak helped to dramat-ically curb organized crime in India's financial capital, breaking the back of violent gangs and sending mobsters on the run.

But after years of tormenting crime dons, the past has returned to haunt him.

The tall, mustachioed Nayak, 34, has been arrested and ordered held until early March as anti-corruption officers probe allegations he had amassed wealth, including real estate worth millions of rupees, far beyond what his salary could pay for.

Nayak is not alone in his fall from grace. More than half a dozen officers of a crack force, formed over a decade ago, have been accused of corruption and links with the underworld.

Known in the Indian media as "encounter specialists" for shooting down criminals in raids, the men have either been dismissed or suspended until an investigation into their financial assets is completed.

Nayak's critics claim that as well as taking mob money, the so-called "supercops" have been routinely killing gangsters in stage-managed shootouts and in custody. Human rights workers have branded the deaths nothing less than extrajudicial executions.

"I've done nothing wrong. These charges are false," the sub-inspector said recently after appearing in a Mumbai court.

Nayak said he killed over 80 criminals in shootouts.

In the late 1990s, Mumbai, then known as Bombay, faced a tide of mafia killings, abductions and extortion demands.

Poor migrants from villages and small towns were drafted into gangs, taking up the gun for cash, earning relatively small amounts but more than they could hope to make honestly.

The underworld was remote-controlled by bosses based in Dubai, Malaysia and Karachi who had fled India to avoid arrest, leaving behind associates to carry out their orders.

Mumbai's authorities hit back, giving a free hand to officers like Nayak who worked informers and wielded their guns to administer justice.

In a decade of violent confron-tations, the officers busted hideouts and shot dead at least 350 suspected gangsters, drawing cheers from businessmen and the Bollywood set, prime mob targets.

Newspapers splashed photographs of the officers across their front pages, while film directors explored Nayak's climb from abject poverty.

Many people supported the "supercops" because snuffing out the bad guys, most felt, was better than putting them through a failing justice system where witnesses could be manipulated and cases drag on for years.

Human rights activists say police routinely killed criminals in cold blood after taking them to a lonely spot and telling them to run. When they did so, or even if they did not, they were shot, usually in the back.

"They kill them (criminals) somewhere and then take their bodies to hospital and put it down as a shootout death," PA Sebastian, a human rights activist, said.

Sometimes, rights activists allege, officers blaze away as they compete with each other for media headlines.

But police officers say they open fire only in self-defense.

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