'Fake killings' return to Kashmir

By Altaf Hussain
BBC News, Srinagar

The mother of one of three men who were allegedly killed in a "fake encounter" in Kashmir in April
Image caption,
Many believe that 'fake killings' are taking place in Kashmir.

Three men went missing in Indian-administered Kashmir in April.

Nothing extraordinary about that, but some time later their bodies were discovered near the Line of Control (LoC), which separates Indian- and Pakistani-administered Kashmir - a fate which militants trying to cross the border often meet.

But during investigations, the police discovered that the men had been killed in a staged gun battle in a frontier area.

The probe also revealed that a senior officer of the Indian army - a major - had the three men kidnapped by offering them jobs as porters.

The troops later informed the police that they had killed three militants. The army also claimed to have found Pakistani currency and arms and ammunition on the three men.

The major has been suspended and another senior soldier transferred from his post. The army has pledged to "co-operate" with the police in investigations.

So have 'fake encounter' killings - where the security forces are alleged to carry out extrajudicial killings - returned to Kashmir?

Political leaders across the spectrum - pro-Indian, anti-Indian and government ministers - think so.

'Bogey of infiltration'

"There are hardliners in the Indian Army and intelligence agencies, as there are in Pakistan, who think that by raising the bogey of infiltration and gun battles near the border they can create terror among people and also put pressure on Pakistan," says Mehbooba Mufti, prominent pro-India leader who heads the largest opposition party in the state.

Kashmir's law minister, Ali Mohammad Sagar says there have been "several proven cases of fake encounters in the past 20 years".

Investigating the latest "fake encounters" of the three men from Nadihal village in Barramulla district, the police said that the army major had done it to get "a promotion and/or a cash reward".

But the army rejects this allegation, saying cash rewards for killing militants are a "myth".

Image caption,
The army has been accused of carrying out 'fake killings"

"Awards are given for individual bravery of a soldier," says army spokesman Lt Col JS Brar.

The army says it has "zero tolerance" for human rights violations and soldiers found guilty are punished.

It says more than 1,500 allegations of such violations reported to it had been investigated, and the overwhelming majority of them had "been found to be false".

But reports of such "fake encounters" continue to surface from time to time in Kashmir.

Three years ago five bodies were exhumed in Ganderbal district as a probe into claims that police were fabricating clashes with militants as an excuse to carry out extrajudicial killings.

They had been buried as foreign militants, but later turned out to be civilians.

Unnamed graves

The district police chief and some other officers were arrested in connection with the incident.

Rights groups wonder why none of the army officers involved in the joint "fake encounter" with the police were arrested.

Also, human rights groups discovered nearly 3,000 unnamed graves in the Baramulla and Kupwara districts a couple of years ago.

Rights activist Khurram Pervez says 50 bodies buried in some of the graves were exhumed. And of the 47 which were identified, all but one were those of civilians.

Most of the people in Kashmir feel that such "fake killings" can be checked if the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is withdrawn.

The law gives the armed forces the powers of search and seizure. But more importantly, it gives them immunity against prosecution unless the Indian government accords prior sanction for such prosecution.

Image caption,
There have been widespread protests against the killings

The law protects soldiers who may kill a civilian by mistake or in unavoidable circumstances during an operation against militants.

But many like leading lawyer Mian Abdul Qayoom say that the law has been "misused to kill innocent civilians".

Mr Qayoom says the Indian government has withheld sanction to prosecute a soldier even when it is known that he killed civilians "arbitrarily".

"This is proof that such killings are a policy of the government rather than an aberration on the part of an individual soldier," he says.

Political parties, including the governing National Conference, have repeatedly asked for the withdrawal of the law to make soldiers more accountable.

Mehbooba Mufti says the withdrawal of AFSPA has been recommended by a committee set up by the prime minister.

But there is still no indication that it may be withdrawn soon.

Till then, many in Kashmir believe, such "fake encounters" will keep happening.

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