(New York) - The Indian government should repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which has prevented the military from being held accountable for human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today as civil society groups from across India gathered in New Delhi to protest the law.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) grants the military wide powers of arrest, the right to shoot to kill, and to occupy or destroy property in counterinsurgency operations. Indian officials claim that troops need such powers because the army is only deployed when national security is at serious risk from armed combatants. Such circumstances, they say, call for extraordinary measures.
The AFSPA, which has been in force for decades in Jammu and Kashmir state and the seven northeastern states, has provided immunity for killings and other serious human rights violations committed by the army. Human Rights Watch has documented many cases in Jammu and Kashmir, such as the killing of human rights lawyer Jalil Andrabi in 1996 and the student Javed Ahmed Magray in 2003. In both cases, when police inquiries identified the perpetrators as members of the armed forces, they were shielded by the impunity offered by the AFSPA.
“The Armed Forces Special Powers Act effectively allows Indian troops to get away with murder,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Indian government may claim that it has zero tolerance of human rights abuses, but this law shields troops from prosecution and punishment.”
Clauses in the AFSPA state that no prosecutions can be initiated without permission from the central government. Such permission is rarely granted, providing troops with de facto immunity from prosecutions for human rights abuses.
“Generations of Indians have suffered abuse at the hands of troops empowered by this act, and it has fuelled the cycle of violence in Kashmir and the northeast,” said Ganguly. “Ending this impunity by repealing AFSPA would be the best way to address the public discontent that only fuels further militancy.”
For more than seven years, Irom Sharmila, an activist in Manipur, has been on hunger strike demanding that the government repeal the act following a massacre of civilians by troops in that northeastern state. The government has responded by keeping her in judicial custody to prevent her from attempting suicide, and has ordered her to be force-fed through a nasal tube.
Following widespread protests after the 2004 rape and 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 act. In April 2007, a working group on Jammu and Kashmir appointed by the prime minister also recommended that the act be revoked. However, the cabinet has not acted on these recommendations because of opposition from the army.
"The fact that the government has chosen to ignore recommendations from its own experts suggests that it is not interested in providing accountability and justice,” said Ganguly. “The government must realize that its failure to repeal this law would only lead to further popular distrust and cynicism.”