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India: White House Hosts Prime Minister Singh

As you travel to the United States this weekend to promote India’s image abroad and to seek a greater role for India on the world stage, this is an opportunity for your government to demonstrate to the world that it takes its human rights obligations seriously. India has gained significant influence in the region, and as an emerging power, your foreign minister will soon be meeting with his G-4 colleagues and other states to discuss the possibility of India gaining a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

In a letter on May 28, 2004, Human Rights Watch congratulated you on assuming the office of Prime Minister and called your attention to the fragile human rights situation in India. We welcome the efforts of your government in addressing some of these issues, particularly the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and a review of the oft-abused Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

However, as you well know, many other critical issues still require action. These include threats of further sectarian violence, prevalent child labor, widespread caste discrimination, impunity for the armed forces, and judicial and legal reform. Human Rights Watch welcomes the initiatives by your government to address the burgeoning HIV/AIDS crisis in India and has participated in consultations with the planning commission to frame fresh policy on this issue. However, there is an urgent need for an immediate and robust response from your government in reforming the country's health care system to address the HIV/AIDS crisis. Your government is pursuing a peace process to resolve the conflict in Kashmir, but human rights violations are continuing in the region, as well as in other parts of the country where there is unrest. India's legal system, in the past a pillar of India’s democracy, is no longer as strong as it once was, and there is urgent need for reform.

As you meet with President George W. Bush, we urge you, therefore, to treat the promotion and protection of human rights as a primary goal of your government. We suggest the following eight issues as matters of priority:

Impunity: While the Prevention of Terrorism Act has been repealed and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is being reviewed, there are many other laws that also allow security forces to operate with virtual impunity from prosecution for criminal acts. For instance, Indian law requires permission from a relevant government department before a civil servant can be prosecuted for a crime.

Impunity continues to facilitate human rights abuses by the armed forces. Unless those responsible are promptly and prosecuted in public trials, such acts will continue. The armed forces insist that their personnel are disciplined through internal procedures, but such cases appear to be rare. Public trials, vital in the many cases of unlawful “encounter killings” and other extrajudicial executions, torture, “disappearances,” and other abuses by India’s armed forces, are rarer still.

To reestablish the rule of law, we urge your government to make accountability for the armed forces the highest priority. This is also the view of the many Indian nongovernmental organizations, lawyers, and human rights activists we work with on a daily basis in India. It is important that accountability take place with transparency, without which it is difficult for the victims to be convinced that justice has been served. We also ask you to work to empower the National Human Rights Commission to investigate cases of alleged human rights abuse by the armed forces.

Protect the rights of minorities and combat communal violence: We congratulate you in the prompt and effective handling of the situation after the recent attack in Ayodhya to prevent retaliations against the minority community. However, in many states, groups pursuing communally divisive policies are still operating freely. We urge you to bring to account those responsible for orchestrating or inciting violence against religious and ethnic minorities. It is crucial to launch a public campaign to prevent future communal violence like that in Godhra or in the riots that followed in other parts of Gujarat state. This campaign should include public service announcements aimed at educating the population through efforts to raise awareness of minority rights, and unequivocal condemnation of religious violence and extremism.

In states like Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, there has already been a relentless campaign by some groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to engage in violence and communal attacks against minority Christians and Muslims. It is important that your government be particularly vigilant against violence by extremist organizations who preach religious hatred whether they are Muslim or Hindu.

Accountability for those responsible for the mass killings in Gujarat, Punjab, and Bombay: We urge you to do everything in your power to end impunity for past campaigns of violence against minorities, prosecute and punish those responsible for criminal offenses during the anti-Sikh violence in 1984, the post Ayodhya violence in December 1992 and January 1993, and the attacks in Gujarat in 2002.

In Punjab in the 1980s, hundreds of people were illegally detained and executed by security agencies trying to end the secessionist conflict. Those responsible have still not been punished despite recommendations from the Supreme Court and the National Human Rights Commission to investigate serious and credible allegations of extrajudicial executions.

The recommendations of the Srikrishna Commission on the post-Ayodhya violence in Bombay also should be implemented without delay. Your party as the opposition took positive action to support the rights of those killed or injured in the 2002 riots in Gujarat. However, there continue to be inordinate delays in the investigation of cases to bring those responsible to trial and those pursuing justice need continued protection.

In all these cases, we urge you to appoint independent investigators who will examine all the cases and bring those responsible to trial. Police officers and officials responsible for the excessive use of force should be prosecuted; those with the power and duty to stop the violence but who stood by and allowed the violence to take place should be punished. Your government should also vigorously pursue those officials responsible for the planning and implementation of the violence in each of these cases.

We also encourage you to protect witnesses to prevent them from being threatened for providing evidence to the police or courts. In a September 2004 report, Discouraging Dissent: Intimidation and Harassment of Witnesses, Human Rights Activists, and Lawyers Pursuing Accountability for the 2002 Communal Violence in Gujarat, we documented how those campaigning for Gujarat riot victims have come under attack. Their safety should continue to be an important concern for your government.

Continue work toward ending the conflict in Kashmir: We congratulate you on your recent efforts in Kashmir, including initiation of the bus service between Srinagar and Muzzafarad that will allow greater freedom of movement and allow separated families to meet with each other.
However, serious violations of human rights have remained a constant feature in Kashmir over the last decade. Gunmen who have targeted civilians should be brought to trial. At the same time, your government should investigate credible reports of Indian security agencies involved in torture, arbitrary detention, and summary executions. Some 3,000 people are still missing in Kashmir after they were detained by security forces. We urge you to ensure that security agencies respect human rights law in Kashmir, and punish those found guilty of violations.

Promote the rights of Dalits, tribals and economically marginalized: Your government has initiated discussions with local Dalit rights groups to address the issues of caste-based discrimination. But as we documented in a May 2005 report After the Deluge, India’s Reconstruction Following the 2004 Tsunami, caste-based discrimination remains a major problem in rural India despite over five decades of legislation banning such acts. It was not government officials, but survivors of the upper caste communities who survived the tsunami, who refused to share emergency shelters and relief material with their Dalit neighbors after the tsunami. Tribal communities faced similar discrimination.

The experience after the tsunami proves that there is urgent need to vigorously enforce laws against discrimination. Your government should routinely inform communities that such discrimination is illegal, promote dialogue with the ultimate aim of encouraging all caste groups to live together with mutual respect, and monitor and respond quickly to conflicts between caste groups, including those encouraged by organizations and individuals with political agendas.

Protect the rights of children: Your government is pursuing a policy to ensure universal education for children. These ideas need to be urgently and effectively implemented. Millions of children are going to work instead of learning at school. The Indian government should protect children from engaging in the worst forms of child labor. Hundreds of thousands of children are bonded laborers who toil as virtual slaves, particularly in the silk industry. Your government should acknowledge the existence and extent of bonded child labor and take immediate measures to enforce the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, and other relevant laws regarding bonded child labor. India should ratify ILO Convention No. 182 concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour.

It is also important to encourage parents to send their children to school, but they can only do so when education is accessible to all. Currently almost half the children in India are out of school. Discrimination on the basis of caste and religion has to end in schools. India should ratify the 1960 Convention Against Discrimination in Education.

Prevent discrimination against those with HIV/AIDS: India is soon expected to have the largest number of people in the world living with HIV/AIDS. Stigma and discrimination against them is widespread in India, connected in large part to fear and misinformation about how the virus is spread. Despite the entry of HIV into the general population in many places, it continues to be associated with already-stigmatized people, such as commercial sex workers, men who have sex with men, and migrants. Many such persons often have to cope with violent assault upon them. Many living with HIV/AIDS are denied employment and hundreds of thousands of children who have been born with HIV face discrimination from birth.

We urge you to advance legislation, proposed by your party while in opposition, to prohibit discrimination against persons vulnerable to the HIV/AIDS virus. We also urge you to repeal section 377 of the Indian Penal code, which effectively criminalizes sex between men and is frequently used as justification for harassment of HIV/AIDS educators. Your government should encourage public statements and appearances from high level government authorities to protect the rights of those vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.

Judicial and legal reform: It is essential that the judiciary plays its proper role in addressing the culture of unlawful “encounter killings” and other illegal summary executions of criminal suspects. To address widespread torture by the police and other security forces, we also urge your government to ratify the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which India signed in 1997. We strongly urge you to immediately implement the recommendations by the National Police Commission that call for mandatory judicial inquiry in cases of alleged rape, death or grievous injury of individuals in police custody.

The Committee on Criminal Justice Reforms headed by Justice V.S. Malimath has suggested better training of police, judges and prosecutors to end corruption and incompetence. These should be accepted. We urge your government to provide training and appropriate forensics and technical capability to the police so that they can better investigate crimes and human rights abuses. However, many of the recommendations value expediency over the fundamental right of the accused to a fair trial, and pose a serious threat to the basic guarantees of due process in the criminal justice system. We suggest a careful examination of these recommendations in order to ensure that judicial reforms satisfy Indian and international human rights standards.

Thank you for your consideration. We look forward to a fruitful dialogue with you and your government on these and other matters.

Sincerely,

Brad Adams

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