WikiLeaks disclosures on torture in Kashmir have fuelled fresh demands for repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Baba Umar reports on the plight of victims
THE WIKILEAKS exposé of the International Committee for Red Cross (ICRC) telling US diplomats in 2005 about “torture of civilians” in Kashmiri jails comes at a time when Union Home Minister P Chidambaram says a proposal to amend the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is being studied and the next few months will bring the “contours of a political solution” to the Kashmir problem.
Although the Centre has long been denying torture in Kashmir, separatists say the leaks vindicated complaints about “rampant torture” in Kashmir’s jails even as Chief Minister Omar Abdullah further offended coalition partner Congress by saying the leaks pertain to the year 2005 when the Congress and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) ruled jointly. However, PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti was quick to rebut Abdullah’s remarks, saying, “The PDP government inherited a tormented legacy. If WikiLeaks looks into the abuses during the NC regime, there will be horror stories.”
One such story is that of Nazir Ahmad Sheikh, 40, who is still haunted by memories of the single tungsten light bulb that hung from the cell ceiling and the heavy bamboo stick that repeatedly hit him. And behind the tattered blanket, an army officer, known to locals as Major Maltani, sipping tea and saying, “You will break soon.”
Picked up from a narrow path through a snow-bound orchard in December 1994, the newly-wed farmer of Yehama in north Kashmir’s Handwara district had no militancy or criminal record. Yet his left hand was pushed into a charcoal oven, his legs rolled over with a steel rod — standard torture to get youths to ‘confess’: “I’m a militant and have a gun to surrender.”
Sheikh didn’t just lose four fingers and both legs due to botched treatment. He also lost a precious piece of ancestral paddy land that he sold to buy artificial limbs. And then, “my wife Halima divorced me a year later for being handicapped,” Sheikh told TEHELKA. His brother-in-law Muhammad Ramzaan, a daily wager, took over the responsibility of looking after the family.
Sheikh had pinned his hopes on the case (FIR 54/95 under Section 325, Ranbir Penal Code) registered at Sanzipora, Handwara, on 12 April 1995 against the 14 Dogra Regiment. But it was closed in the usual way, by declaring the accused “untraceable”.
If the case had stayed on track, Sheikh could have asked for sanction from the Central government for prosecuting his army tormentors in a civil court. But chances of such a sanction are slim as is obvious from the government’s own figures — on 5 June 2009, the state home department and joint secretary (defence), jointly submitted to the high court a list of 458 requests for redress, 46 of which relate to the army, for the period 1990-2007. In none of these was sanction given. Human rights groups attribute this to “non-seriousness” of the state government and “prejudiced approach” of the Central government.
The list was submitted in response to court orders dated 22 December 2008 in the case of Javed Ahmad Magray vs Union of India. The PDP government set up an inquiry commission into Magray’s killing in May 2003 and named the key accused as Major Vastava, Lt Verma and Subedar S Sinha of the Assam Regiment. However, the state government was unable to initiate a criminal prosecution because it failed to secure the sanction for prosecution from the Central government, a necessary requirement under Section 7 of AFSPA.
“All this can tell you how atrocities have been ignored for years,” says Jammu & Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) president Parvez Imroz. He says successive state governments have never been serious about pursuing these cases.
“In fact, when Magray’s parents went to the police station asking why their son’s murder case was not sent to New Delhi for sanction of prosecution against the armymen, they were told by the SHO to translate the FIR from Urdu to English,” he says.
In Kashmir, there have been many accusations against army, paramilitary forces, and the police about custodial killings, disappearances, torture, rape and molestation. Killing of civilians and passing them off as ‘militants’ and ‘foreign terrorists’ for rewards and promotions is another trend.
IN MARCH 2000, when the Pathribal fake encounter was reported, the then Union home secretary Kamal Pandey and home minister LK Advani, within hours of the encounter, came on record to say the police and army had gunned down five Lashkare- Toiba militants responsible for the massacre of 36 Sikhs in Chittisinghpora when the then US President Bill Clinton was touring India. The mass public outcry led to the truth: the CBI not only concluded that the encounter was staged but also chargesheeted five army officers in a Srinagar court on 11 May 2006.
But in the Supreme Court, the counsels of the accused submitted that the CBI filed the chargesheet without obtaining mandatory sanction from the Central government under provisions of AFSPA. Meanwhile, the army officers got promotions.
That year, on 5 October, Showkat Ahmed, a cleric at a mosque in Alamgari Bazaar, Srinagar, went missing. Within four hours, the army’s 13 Rashtriya Rifles and the police’s Special Operation Group killed him in a fake encounter at Baazipora Ajas in Ganderbal district, according to the police’s Special Investigation Team (SIT) probing the case. In the FIR, they had labelled Showkat as Abu Zahid of Karachi, claiming he was killed in ‘multiple ambushes’ at Baazipora and a huge arms recovery was made. His DNA, however, matched with his relatives proving that he was a local.
However, the army challenged the jurisdiction of the SIT on the grounds that it had not obtained sanction from New Delhi under one of the provisions of AFSPA.
And so the abuses continued unchecked. Kashmir skidded into shock in October 2009 after 11 teenaged boys, arrested for stone-pelting, deposed before a local court that the police forced them to “sodomise each other” in lock-up and filmed the act on a cell phone camera.
In the year just past, the army claimed to have killed the oldest rebel of Kashmir in Handwara district. However, Habibbulah, 70, later turned out to be a local beggar who was labelled a ‘foreign militant’ from whom the army claimed to have recovered an AK-47 rifle, Pakistani currency and ammunition.
NGOs say the state government is not serious about pursuing cases of abuse and the Centre is prejudiced
And the list goes on.
The recent killings of over a hundred people, mostly youth, in paramilitary CRPF and police firing, together with the fake encounter of three youths in Machil sector of Kupwara near the Line of Control by the army has, however, become a rallying point for all those who have been demanding inquiry into such missing, killed or tortured cases of their family members.
DEMANDING AN end to the now 20- year-old ‘draconian’ AFSPA and other laws that offer impunity to the armed forces for arresting, detaining and shooting any person “acting in contravention of any law” is the head of Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and 2005 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Parveena Ahanger of Srinagar.
Ahanger’s son, high-school student Javaid Ahmad, was picked up by soldiers on the night of 17 August 1990 when he was 16. She has not heard from him since then. The case was investigated by Jammu & Kashmir Police agencies and heard by the additional district judge, Srinagar. Three armymen were accused. The state government in 1997 sought sanction for launching prosecution; however, the Union home ministry refused sanction citing ‘improper investigation’ as the reason.
“AFSPA is draconian. It has to go,” Ahanger insists. “The Act has shielded and facilitated impunity not only to those who picked up my son but the armed forces responsible for hundreds of disappearances across the Valley in the past 21 years.”
In fact, the cables on torture released by WikiLeaks said that ICRC staff told US diplomats of 177 visits to detention centres in the state and elsewhere in the country between 2002 and 2004 in which ICRC staff met 1,491 detainees and managed to interview 1,296 privately.
According to the leaks, ICRC found that detainees were maltreated in 852 cases. A total of 171 described being beaten and 681 being subjected to six forms of torture. These included 498 on whom electricity had been used, 381 who had been suspended from the ceiling, 294 who had prison personnel sitting on a bar placed across their thighs, 181 whose legs had been stretched by being ‘split 180 degrees’, 234 tortured with water and 302 ‘sexual’ cases.
“The numbers add up to more than 681, as many detainees were subjected to more than one form of ill-treatment,” the cable said. The ICRC was reported to have told the American diplomats that all branches of the Indian security forces used these forms of ill-treatment and torture, adding: “The abuse always takes place in the presence of officers and detainees were rarely militants (they are routinely killed), but persons connected to or believed to have information about the insurgency.”
According to the leaks, ICRC told the American diplomats about 300 detention centres till 2000 and failure in gaining access to the ‘Cargo Building’, the most notorious detention centre, in Srinagar city.
Muhammad Yasin Malik (not the JKLF leader), is one such person who was subjected to all three forms of torture in the spring of 1994. Malik of Zandfaran, Baramullah in North Kashmir, was on his way to the capital to submit his admission form in KITE Polytechnic, Srinagar. However, in the city’s Batamaloo, armymen mistook him for the JKLF leader and immediately dragged him into a nearby army camp.
“During the initial days, I was beaten up with sticks and kicked with jackboots,” Malik recalls. For 15 days, Malik was tortured at the notorious Papa 1 and Papa 2 interrogation centres, both tucked under the foothills of Zabarwan Mountains overlooking the picturesque Dal Lake.
The Red Cross says 852 detainees were maltreated; 681 of them were subjected to six forms of torture
“One morning, they (troops) inserted a thin rod into my penis. I fainted when they passed electricity through it,” he recalls. “After my lunch, they would often waterboard me. I would simply vomit it all out.”
The staff of J&K’s home department is tight-lipped about the number of cases the state has forwarded to the Centre for sanctioning prosecution against the armed forces. “I don’t have the exact details,” Principal Secretary (Home) B R Sharma told TEHELKA. “But the private secretary keeps a record. You must talk to him.”
Private Secretary (Home) KL Anand said he doesn’t deal with the issue and instead Additional Secretary (Home) Dilshada should be approached. When contacted, she said she only keeps the record of those who are currently detained in jails across the state. She referred TEHELKA to Deputy Secretary (Home) Subash Chibber.
‘Kashmir is a big jail,’ says MLA Engineer Rashid. ‘But that doesn’t mean we stop seeking our rights’
“I don’t deal with it. Talk to Senior Law Officer Iqbal Mir for the needful,” he said. Mir also denied having all the details. “Only the police can reveal the exact number of cases that have gone to the Centre,” he said.
Hitting out at those demanding dilution of AFSPA, army officials say they can’t operate in Kashmir without AFSPA.
“Fighting militancy and maintaining human rights is definitely a very difficult game. But one has to clearly understand the limitations under which soldiers operate and in the environment where there is no clear identification of anti-national elements,” Brigadier Staff General of Northern Command Sanjay Chawla told TEHELKA in an email interview.
ASKED ABOUT cases of human rights violation in which AFSPA has been used as a shield, he said, “The army carries on its shoulders the burden of ensuring that all its actions are done in good faith. But at the same time AFSPA is essential. Otherwise our personnel would get bogged down in handling frivolous accusations made against them in civil courts.”
The officer said that state governments in the Northeast and Kashmir have sought sanction from the Central government for prosecution of army personnel under AFSPA in 44 cases (42 in J&K, 2 in NE) of which 40 cases (38 J&K, 2 NE) have been investigated and four cases are under investigation. “In all the 44 cases, 25 cases (24 in J&K, 1 in NE) were closed and sanction not granted by the central government. 15 cases (14 J&K, 1 NE) are under process at Command Headquarters, Army Headquarters and Ministry of Defence,” he said.
If victims like Nazir Ahmad Sheikh have any hope, it is because of people like independent MLA Engineer Rashid who has shot to fame for his derring-do. On 2 May this year, he took part in the funeral prayers of three militants killed in gunbattles with the army in Kupwara district.
Rashid has filed more than a dozen cases in the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) that pertain to torture, custodial killings, and fake encounters in north Kashmir. Only recently, Rashid also filed cases in the SHRC accusing the army of taking people of 24 villages for forced labour.
Later, a report submitted by the J&K Police’s CID wing to the SHRC read: “As per verification, the army camped in Handwara used to take along residents of Mawar for forced labour, night patrolling and other operations without paying any wages to them. This exercise remained enforced from 1990 to 2002. Since then, no such complaint has been received from any area of Handwara.”
“Kashmir is a big jail,” MLA Rashid told TEHELKA. “But that doesn’t mean that we stop trying to seek our rights. Come what may, I’ll never accept second-class treatment to my people.”