SRINAGAR: The gunning down of two innocent young men by trigger happy Army soldiers brings into focus the longstanding demand for the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act which ensures immunity, and hence encourages impunity, for the military posted in Jammu and Kashmir and states in the North East.

Soldiers of the 53 Rashtriya Rifles gunned down four young men in a Maruti car at Chattergam Chowk, just 20 kilometres from Srinagar. Two of the men, all from Nowgam area, died while the other two are battling serious injuries.

Protests broke out in the area, hundreds of Kashmiris demonstrated on the roads demanding the arrest of the army soldiers.

The Jammu and Kashmir Police has registered a case, for whatever it is worth. Inspector General of Police, Kashmir, Abdul Ghani Mir told reporters that action will be taken according to law. Under the law no action can be taken as the Army is protected by AFSPA, and can only be tried in its own court of inquiry.

After an initial attempt to cover the incident, with the first news maintaining that there had been an encounter in which soldiers had also been killed, the Army admitted to the senseless killing. The Army has now termed the killings as “highly unfortunate” and has ordered a court of inquiry into the killings.

In the last few years the Army had taken a back seat in terms of such human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir with the state police, in fact, occupying the perceived “oppressor” position after the death of 126 boys in the summer and autumn of 2010. This incident brings the Army back into the spotlights, fuelling the longstanding demand of the people of the state to remove AFSPA that has been used to prevent action against even those clearly guilty for large scale human rights violations in the sensitive border state.

Faith in these courts of inquiry has been belied over the years because of the failure of the Army to find soldiers guilty, and/or then take action as required. This January the Army closed the Pathribal case, with even senior officers from the military privately expressing surprise, for supposed “lack of evidence” against the Army personnel accused in March 2000 for the extrajudicial killings of five civilians in Pathribal. The Army claimed that these men were terrorists who had killed 36 Sikhs earlier in the area.

In a 2006 report, Everyone Lives in Fear, Human Rights Watch documented the role of army personnel in the killings in Pathribal. Excerpts from the report:

On March 20, 2000, on the eve of a visit to India by then-US President Bill Clinton, armed men entered the village of Chattisinghpora in Anantnag district at night, lined up male residents outside, and opened fire, killing 36 and wounding several others. On March 25, the security forces claimed that five militants responsible for the massacre had been killed in an armed encounter at Pathirabal. The army handed over the bodies to the police and filed a police report. The bodies were badly mutilated, with three completely charred and another that had been decapitated.

Meanwhile, five villagers from the district had been abducted on March 24, and reported missing to the local police station. Villagers went to the site of the killings of the alleged militants, where they found some items of clothing belonging to two of the five missing men. Local residents asserted that those killed were not militants but the abducted men who had then been murdered in a fake encounter. An army spokesman dismissed the allegations, saying: “Genuine terrorists have been killed. Do not give much credence to these reports about a fake encounter. People are twisting facts.”

The villagers held several protests and a judicial inquiry was eventually ordered. The bodies were exhumed and through DNA testing were identified to be the missing villagers. The Central Bureau of Investigation took over the investigation in February 2003 and in March 2006 filed murder charges against the five army officers. However, the army opposed any civilian prosecution. There was an appeal to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the army could choose between prosecution by a military court or a civilian court. In June 2012, the army agreed to a court martial.”

The report further added:

“Victims, activists, and members of the public in Jammu and Kashmir and in the northeast have long campaigned for repeal of the AFSPA. Irom Sharmila, an activist in Manipur, has been on a decade-long hunger strike demanding repeal following a massacre of civilians by troops there. The government has responded by keeping her in judicial custody to prevent her from committing suicide and ordered her force-fed through a nasal tube.

In 2004, following widespread protests after the murder of Manorama Devi in Manipur, the Indian government set up a five-member committee to review the AFSPA. The review committee submitted its report on June 6, 2005, recommending the repeal of the law. In April 2007 a working group on Jammu and Kashmir appointed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also recommended that the Act be revoked.

The four youth killed now have been as Faisal Ahmad Bhat son of Muhammad Yusuf, Mehraj-u-din Ahmad Dar son Ghulam Muhammad, Muhammad Zahid Naqash son Muhammad Ayub, and Muhammad Shaker Bhat son Abdur Rehman. Among them Faisal and Mehraj-u-Din have died.

“This is very unfortunate and we regret the loss of lives,” General Officer Commanding, 15 Corps, Lt General Subrata Saha is quoted by Greater Kashmir as saying, “I assure you guilty will be punished.”

Giving details of the incident, Lt Gen Saha said “for the past two days we had information that a white Maruti car and Honda bike has disappeared in the area. So three mobile check posts were set up in Chattergam. The Maruti vehicle did not stop at two check posts. The unfortunate incident took place at the third check post. We are looking into circumstances.”