Indian drug kingpin mysteriously escapes police custody

NEW DELHI — Indian police are embarrassed after word leaked out this week that an alleged drug kingpin suspected of running a $40-million heroin and methamphetamine network walked away from the police unit guarding him and the escape was kept from the public for days.

Ranjit Singh, who uses the alias Raja Kandola, was reportedly being transported back to Delhi’s Tihar Jail by train Monday after a court hearing in northern Punjab state when he flew the coop about 11:30 p.m.

Police officials were not available for comment, and versions differ on exactly what happened. Some media reports say Singh was escorted by four officers aboard the Jammu Mail express train, others by six. Most agree that the train made a stop at Ludhiana, about 160 miles north of New Delhi.

Mukesh Gautam, a crime reporter with the Dainik Bhaskar daily newspaper, says sources told him that five of the officers were asleep when the train stopped and Singh asked the sixth to go buy him some tea. When the officer returned, Singh was gone. Another version has Singh offering spiked drinks to the policemen and slipping away, although it’s unclear why Singh would be entertaining the police.

Gautam says even these versions may be questionable. A few years ago in a similar case, he said, police initially reported that a prisoner escaped from a rail carriage only to eventually admit he had slipped away earlier from the hotel where they were all staying. “Maybe it’s the same situation,” he said.

Other pieces don’t quite fit together, Gautam added, including why the Delhi police transporting Singh didn’t report his flight to the railway police, who have jurisdiction over crimes within the system, and remained on the train another five or six hours to Delhi without trying to apprehend him.

Police only acknowledged the escape Wednesday.

Accounts also differ on whether Singh was handcuffed and, if so, whether the handcuffs were affixed to the train. India’s Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that handcuffs are a human rights violation except in extreme cases. Police officials could not be reached for comment.

“By international standards, the police face absurd restrictions,” said Ajai Sahni, head of Delhi’s Institute for Conflict Management, a think tank. “Ordinarily, unless there’s demonstrable danger, you’re not allowed to handcuff them. Often you’ll see police and hardened criminals walking hand in hand like lovers around the court.”

Some saw this case as part of a broader pattern. “There are a lot of problems with the Indian police, including poor training, corruption, incompetence and the possibility of being subverted,” Sahni said.

Singh, who spent much of his life overseas, eluded arrest when police closed in on a Punjab farmhouse in June, reportedly seizing 70 pounds of methamphetamines and 40 pounds of ephedrine, a key ingredient in making methamphetamines.

Singh was finally caught in August by Delhi police, who said he had with him nearly a pound of heroin, half a pound of ephedrine and three semiautomatic firearms. He faced separate charges in Punjab of drug racketeering, sending illegal immigrants to foreign countries and firearms violations, which was why he had been transported north last week.

On Wednesday, an embarrassed Delhi police force announced it had suspended the head constable in charge of transporting Singh and several other officers on his team and initiated a high-level investigation.

But escapes are relatively frequent and follow-through relatively rare, said Sahni.

“There’s not a particularly high chance of those who escape getting caught again,” he said. “The situation is fairly abysmal.”

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-- Mark Magnier

 
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