(New York) – Killing of 14 civilians by Indian security forces in Nagaland state highlights need for Indian government to immediately repeal abusive armed forces special powers law, Human Rights said Watch today. The law gives armed forces deployed in internal conflicts broad powers to use lethal force and provides soldiers with effective immunity from prosecution.
On December 4, 2021, soldiers from the 21st Para Special Forces Army Unit shot dead six coal miners in the Mon district of Nagaland, claiming the soldiers mistook the miners for militants. The deaths led to violent clashes between local villagers and troops, killing seven other civilians and a soldier. A day later, the Assam Rifles army unit killed another person after protesters attacked their camp. The local police filed an initial briefing report saying that the military had not made a request to the police station to provide a police guide for their counterinsurgency operation and therefore, “It is evident that the intention of the security forces is to kill and injure. civilians.
“The Indian Minister of Interior and Army’s promises to investigate the gruesome murder of 14 people by the military will come to naught unless those responsible are prosecuted,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, director from South Asia to Human Rights Watch. “As long as the Special Powers of the Armed Forces Act protects soldiers from liability, such atrocities will continue. “
Indian Interior Minister Amit Shah expressed regret over the incident and said a special investigation team would investigate the matter. However, he did not tell parliament whether the central government would allow those responsible to be prosecuted. The military also expressed regret over the incident and set up a court of inquiry to investigate.
The murders renewed calls for the abolition of the Special Powers of the Armed Forces Act (AFSPA). The chief ministers of Nagaland and neighboring Meghalaya state, both allies of the central government led by the Bharatiya Janata party, have called for the law to be repealed, as have opposition politicians, activists from the human rights and affected residents.
The AFSPA, enacted in 1958 as a short-term measure to allow the deployment of the army to counter an armed separatist movement in the Naga Hills, has now been in effect for more than six decades. In addition to Nagaland, it is currently used in Manipur, Assam, and parts of Arunachal Pradesh, northeast India, and the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. .
AFSPA gives the armed forces broad powers to shoot to kill, make arrests under spurious pretexts, conduct warrantless searches and demolish structures in the name of “aid to civilian power,” Human Rights Watch said. . The powers that the law extends to the armed forces come into effect once an area subject to the law has been declared “disturbed” by the central or state government. This declaration is not subject to judicial review.
Equipped with these special powers, the soldiers raped, tortured, forcibly disappeared and killed people without fear of being held responsible. The act violates international human rights law protections, including the right to life, the right to be protected from arbitrary arrest and detention, and the right not to be subjected to torture and torture. cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. It also denies victims and their families the right to a remedy.
While Indian law allows for the prosecution of members of the armed forces accused of crimes under the military or civilian justice system, AFSPA requires the prior approval of the central government for civil suits against military personnel. Under the Army Act, the military can transfer a soldier from civilian detention to military detention for offenses that can be tried by court martial.
The information available shows little evidence that the military fully and effectively prosecutes soldiers and officers for rights violations. Nonetheless, the central government routinely denies permission to prosecute military personnel. In 2018, the Defense Ministry informed parliament that it had rejected all 50 requests from the state government of Jammu and Kashmir for civil lawsuits against soldiers since 2001.
Several government-appointed commissions in India have recommended that the law be repealed. But faced with resistance from the military, the government failed to implement the recommendations. Several United Nations human rights bodies have also called for the law to be repealed. A 2019 report on Jammu and Kashmir by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that AFSPA “remains a major obstacle to accountability.”
Even in the most high-profile cases of extrajudicial killings, AFSPA protected security force personnel from prosecution in civilian courts while military courts ultimately absolved them of any wrongdoing. In November 2014, in a rare success, the military reported that a military court sentenced five soldiers, including two officers, to life in prison for faking an armed encounter and executing three villagers in Machil in Jammu and Kashmir in 2010. But in July 2017, a military court suspended the sentence and released all five.
The Supreme Court, in a landmark 2016 ruling, underscored this lack of accountability by ruling that any allegation of excessive force or retaliation by uniformed personnel resulting in death requires a full investigation. The court declared that such force was not allowed “even in an area declared a disturbed zone by AFSPA and against militants, insurgents and terrorists”. A year later, the highest court ordered an investigation into alleged unlawful killings committed by government security forces in Manipur state from 1979 to 2012, in response to a petition filed by victims’ families and groups. non-governmental organizations in Manipur calling for an investigation into 1,528 murders.
Despite the Supreme Court’s order, the central government refused permission to prosecute armed forces personnel, citing AFSPA, in all extrajudicial killings investigated by a special team of the Central Bureau of Investigation. In one case, involving the murder of Pheiroijam Sanajit in 2004, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed a murder, forcible confinement and disappearance of evidence against four members of the 19th Rajput (Bikaner) of the Indian Army. However, the Indian Ministry of Defense refused to grant permission to prosecute them, citing AFSPA and claiming that Sanajit was killed in an “ambush during his official duties in the legitimate exercise of powers conferred by him. the law “.
In his February 2021 order in this case, the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Manipur sought clarification from the state’s high court, noting that “the refusal of sanction of prosecution by the competent authority has become a matter of routine in most cases where defense / paramilitary personnel are involved in bogus encounters.
Following the December 4 killings in Nagaland, former Justice Madan Lokur, a bench member of the Supreme Court who led the investigation into alleged extrajudicial killings by security forces in Manipur, said that although AFSPA grants broad powers to the armed forces, it “does not mean that they can walk around killing anyone.”
“AFSPA has long shielded the armed forces from responsibility for serious human rights violations and denied justice to injured families,” Ganguly said. “The government should ensure an independent civilian investigation into the Nagaland killings and urgently repeal AFSPA to save many more lives. “