(New York) - India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act has been used to violate fundamental freedoms for 50 years and should be repealed, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
Human Rights Watch’s 16-page report, “Getting Away With Murder: 50 years of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act,” describes how the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA, has become a tool of state abuse, oppression, and discrimination. The law grants the military wide powers to arrest without warrant, shoot-to-kill, and destroy property in so-called “disturbed areas.” It also protects military personnel responsible for serious crimes from prosecution, creating a pervasive culture of impunity.
“The Indian government’s responsibility to protect civilians from attacks by militants is no excuse for an abusive law like the AFSPA,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, senior South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Fifty years of suffering under the AFSPA is 50 years too long – the government should repeal the AFSPA now.”
Enacted on August 18, 1958 as a short-term measure to allow deployment of the army against an armed separatist movement in India’s northeastern Naga Hills, the AFSPA has been invoked for five decades. It has since been used throughout the northeast, particularly in Assam, Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur. A variant of the law was also used in Punjab during a separatist movement in the 1980s and 90s, and has been in force in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990. Indian officials have long sought to justify use of the law by citing the need for the armed forces to have extraordinary powers to combat armed insurgents. Human Rights Watch said that abuses facilitated by the AFSPA, especially extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and “disappearances,” have fed public anger and disillusionment with the Indian state. This has permitted militant groups to flourish in the northeast and Jammu and Kashmir.
The AFSPA has not only led to human rights violations, but it has allowed members of the armed forces to perpetrate abuses with impunity. They have been shielded by clauses in the AFSPA that prohibit prosecutions from being initiated without permission from the central government. Such permission is rarely granted.
“Violations under the AFSPA have served as a recruiting agent for militant groups,” said Ganguly. “In both Kashmir and the northeast, we have heard over and over again that abuses by troops, who are never punished for their crimes, have only shrunk the space for those supporting peaceful change.”
Indians have long protested against the AFSPA. The Supreme Court has issued guidelines to prevent human rights violations, but these are routinely ignored. Since 2000, Irom Sharmila, an activist in Manipur, has been on hunger strike demanding repeal of the act. The government has responded by keeping her in judicial custody, force-fed through a nasal tube, and has ignored numerous appeals for repeal from activists in Jammu and Kashmir.
Following widespread protests after the 2004 murder in custody of an alleged militant called 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 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 armed forces.
There has long been international criticism of the AFSPA. Over 10 years ago, in 1997, the United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed concern over the “climate of impunity” provided by the act. Since then, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions (2006), the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (2007) and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (2007), have all called for an end to the AFSPA.
Human Rights Watch said that the government should follow its own example when in 2004 the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh repealed the widely abused Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). POTA was enacted soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and allowed security agencies to hold suspects for up to 180 days without charges. In practice, the law was often used against marginalized communities such as Dalits (so-called “untouchables”), indigenous groups, Muslims, and the political opposition.
“The Indian government acted with principle when it repealed the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act,” said Ganguly. “It must display the same courage now in repealing AFSPA.”