(New York) – The Indian government should appoint an independent commission to promptly and transparently investigate the killing of four protesters by Border Security Force (BSF) troops in Jammu and Kashmir state, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should act to end the BSF’s longstanding impunity for large numbers of killings over many years.
The unclear circumstances resulting in the deaths of four protesters, and the wounding of nearly a dozen more people, highlight the urgency of an independent inquiry. The BSF reported that on July 18, 2013, in Ramban district, its troops interrogated a local resident who it said “made baseless and false allegations about being mistreated.” After protesters gathered and “started stone pelting vigorously on the BSF post,” troops fired at the protesters in self-defense, the BSF said.
Local residents allege that BSF soldiers entered a mosque during a search operation and were rude and disrespectful to the mosque staff. When unarmed protesters gathered at the post, the BSF troops called for police support. The security forces then opened fire on the protesters, the local residents said.
“The loss of life at the Ramban mosque needs a prompt investigation by an independent commission,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Any finding of illegal use of force by BSF troops should result in prosecutions. Too often the BSF’s version of events is simply accepted, allowing killing after killing for which no one is held to account.”
Senior Indian officials have responded appropriately to the incident, but need to follow up with action, Human Rights Watch said. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said that it is “highly unacceptable to shoot at unarmed protesters.” Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde has promised an investigation and said that “any use of excessive force or irresponsible action will be dealt with strictly.” Previous investigations of BSF abuses have often been delayed and prosecutions stalled.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented misbehavior and serious human rights violations by BSF troops along the Bangladesh border. The border guards, who are deployed to prevent infiltration, trafficking, and smuggling, had engaged in numerous cases of unlawful use of force, arbitrary detention, and torture, and killed over a thousand Indian and Bangladeshi nationals. The BSF was ordered to exercise restraint and use rubber bullets instead of live ammunition, which led to a decrease in the number of people fatally injured, though unlawful killings continue.
The government has repeatedly failed to prosecute BSF personnel responsible for serious abuses. Inquiries by the National Human Rights Commission receive a standard response that fatalities occurred when troops had to fire in self-defense.
Human Rights Watch called on the Indian government to publicly order the security forces to follow the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The Basic Principles state that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.” Furthermore, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
Since the shootings, violent protests have broken out in several parts of Jammu and Kashmir, and authorities have imposed curfews in some areas. Human Rights Watch called on organizers of protests to take steps to deter supporters from engaging in violence, including attacks on law enforcement officers.
“Security forces sometimes react with gunfire when outnumbered by an angry crowd, which is why they need to be properly trained in nonlethal crowd control methods,” Ganguly said. “Incidents that end in shootings are not only terrible for all those involved, but set the stage for unnecessary bloodshed in the future.”