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(New York) - The Indian government must launch a credible and independent investigation into all “disappearances” and fake “encounter killings” in Jammu and Kashmir state since the conflict began in 1989, Human Rights Watch said today. Last week, on February 6, India signed a new United Nations treaty to combat forced disappearances.

Recent investigations into the “disappearance” of Abdul Rahman Paddar, a carpenter who went missing in December, have shown that he was picked up in Srinagar by a special operations squad of Gandherbal district police and later killed. Although Abdul Rahman had been reported missing by his family, the police identified him as a Pakistani militant and claimed that he had been killed in an armed encounter. Abdul Rahman Paddar’s body was exhumed and identified by his relatives last month.

Four other bodies were also exhumed, including that of a street vendor and a Muslim priest, who had all “disappeared” last year. Eight policemen, including two senior officers, have been arrested for these murders. A judicial inquiry has been ordered into these fake “encounter killings,” which are executions staged to look like self-defense. Human Rights Watch documented many such cases in its September 2006 report, “‘Everyone Lives in Fear’: Patterns of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir.”

“Recent revelations have confirmed what families in Kashmir have been alleging all along,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Indian security forces have ‘disappeared’ countless people in Jammu and Kashmir since 1989 and staged fake encounter killings while fabricating claims that those killed were militants.”

The Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons in Jammu and Kashmir (APDP), fearing that their relatives might have met the same fate, is now calling for an investigation into all “disappearances.” The APDP alleges that more than 10,000 people are missing in Jammu and Kashmir. The government has admitted that nearly 4,000 people are missing, but claims that some of them may have crossed into Pakistan to join militant groups. Until now, authorities have denied all responsibility for the fate or whereabouts of the “disappeared” persons in response to habeas corpus petitions.

Officially, the government has always denied allegations of staging fake encounter killings. However, according to Indian security officials who have spoken to Human Rights Watch on condition of anonymity, fake encounter killings are a common occurrence. Fake encounter killings are even encouraged through decorations, gallantry citations or promotions of personnel credited for the death of “militants.” However, it has long been alleged that these incentives lead to abuses, including the murder of innocents, as happened in the case of Abdul Rahman Paddar.

When there are public demonstrations protesting a fake encounter killing, the official response usually is to offer an oral assurance of an inquiry, though these rarely happen. If such inquiries do take place, the findings are seldom made public. If any action is taken against those found responsible, that too is rarely made public.

“We welcome judicial inquiries into encounter killings, but given the government’s track record, there is reason to be skeptical,” said Adams. “We hope the Indian government will surprise us with a speedy and credible investigation.”

Human Rights Watch urged the Indian authorities to establish an independent commission on “disappearances” and fake encounter killings, one that is empowered to compel both the testimony of state agents and the disclosure of documents. The commission should include eminent persons who inspire enough trust to enable witnesses or victims’ families to register such cases without fear of intimidation. According to the APDP, many families have not filed missing person complaints because they fear retribution from the security forces.

Human Rights Watch said that witnesses and family members told them that they hadn’t filed complaints because they were afraid of retaliation or because they felt that the police would not take their complaints seriously.

“To end the vicious cycle of violence and mistrust, Kashmiris have to be able to trust that their complaints will be heard and addressed,” said Adams.

Human Rights Watch called on the Indian government to establish an independent and impartial commission of inquiry into serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by Indian security forces since the beginning of the Kashmir conflict in 1989. The findings of the commission should be made public and the commission should be empowered to recommend the prosecution of persons implicated for abuse.

The government of Jammu and Kashmir should publish its list of missing persons, so that families and groups like APDP and the government can begin to account for missing persons. As there are over 30,000 Kashmiri refugees in Pakistan, such a list could be provided to the Pakistani government, which could also assist in identifying those who are now in Pakistan.

Human Rights Watch said that, to prevent “disappearances” and fake encounter killings, the government should also:

  • Strengthen and enforce laws and policies that protect detainees from torture and other mistreatment, including strict implementation of requirements that all detainees be brought before a magistrate or other judicial authority empowered to review the legality of an arrest within 24 hours;
  • Establish a centralized register of detainees, accessible to lawyers and family members;
  • Respond promptly to habeas corpus petitions in cases of alleged “disappearances;”
  • Take swift and public action against all state officials who have obstructed or ignored judicial orders to produce detainees in court;
  • Take all feasible measures to account for persons reported missing as a result of armed conflict and provide information to their family members;
  • Allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to undertake the full range of its protection activities in Jammu and Kashmir, including giving it full access to all army and paramilitary interrogation and detention centers;
  • Promptly ratify and implement the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which India signed on February 6, the date the treaty was opened for signature.

“We commend India for signing the new international convention on enforced disappearances,” said Adams. “Ratifying and implementing it would go a long way toward showing Kashmiris that the government is committed to ending human rights abuses there.”

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