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(New York) - The Manipur state government in northeastern India should act to end a cycle of unpunished violence, including killings, by security forces and armed groups, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch said that urgent action is needed by the Indian government to support this process by repealing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which has facilitated serious security force abuse for many years. A government-appointed review committee recommended the repeal in 2004, but the government has yet to act.

"The situation in Manipur is nothing less than a breakdown in the rule of law," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act would help to put an end to the abductions, torture, and killings, and help restore people's confidence in the government."

Local human rights groups have documented several killings in Manipur in recent months in which the killers are alleged to be members of the security forces. The Special Powers Act gives members of the armed forces broad authority to search, arrest, and shoot-to-kill - and protects them from prosecution. The culture of violence perpetuated by this law has become so deeply rooted that the police now routinely commit the same kinds of abuses long practiced by the army and state paramilitary forces.

In several cases, security forces allegedly robbed and killed people, but then claimed that the deaths resulted from "encounters" - shootouts with armed groups. On the morning of June 20, 2009, for example, Waikom Kenedy and Thokchom Samarjit disappeared on their way to an educational institution in Imphal, Manipur's capital. That afternoon, their families learned that both had been killed by Manipur police commandos. The police admitted to the killings, but claimed they occurred during an armed encounter. The relatives believe that the men were robbed of their cash and a heavy gold chain, and then killed.

On January 14, Naorem Robindro left his home with cash to pay a rent deposit, but never returned. His family recovered his body from the morgue, where the police had left it, claiming he was a militant. A joint team of police and members of the paramilitary Assam Rifles said Robindro was killed in an armed encounter. The family believes he was killed for the cash he was carrying and a gold ring and chain, all of which were missing from his body.

On November 7, 2008, Ajit Singh and Yumna Binoy Meitei set out with the equivalent of over US$4,000 in Indian rupees to buy business materials. When they failed to come home, relatives went to check two bodies that a joint team of police and members of the 39th Assam Rifles alleged were militants killed in an encounter. The families identified the bodies as those of the two men, whose money was missing.

On December 20, Mohammad Islamuddin was carrying the equivalent of nearly US$1,000 in cash to purchase construction materials for his house, when he failed to return home or answer his mobile phone. The next morning, newspapers reported the killing of two unidentified militants by the police. One proved to be Islamuddin; the second was his friend, Mohammad Azad, who had gone along to help with the purchases. The money was missing.

"The security forces have a long history of faking ‘encounters,'" said Ganguly. "The central government should order an independent investigation into these killings."

In a September 2008 report, "These Fellows Must Be Eliminated," Human Rights Watch documented human rights abuses by all sides in Manipur, where close to 20,000 people have been killed since separatist rebels began their movement in the 1950s. The title of the report is a quote from the Manipur police chief, who told Human Rights Watch that many of the militants were not political fighters but petty extortionists or criminals who should be "eliminated." In this environment, members of the security forces apparently believe that it is acceptable to kill suspects instead of pursuing prosecutions through the legal system.

"Unexplained killings attributed to the security forces or armed groups have become common in an increasingly lawless Manipur state," said Ganguly. "The state and central governments can restore some public confidence by getting serious about investigating and prosecuting these killings and ensuring that justice is done."

Nearly 30 armed groups are estimated to operate in Manipur. Some have such a strong hold over Manipuri society that ordinary citizens have been forced to build alliances with them to ensure protection from others. The government's failure to end the lawlessness has also encouraged corruption and common crime. The armed groups routinely extract "taxes" from people, even including government officials, and carry out abductions for ransom.

The armed groups have also been implicated in killings. On the morning of February 13, Thingnam Kishan Singh, an administrative official with the Manipur government, left Imphal with other staff members for a meeting in the adjoining Ukhrul district. He failed to turn up for the meeting, answer calls, or return home the following day as scheduled. On February 16, Singh's family was informed by the authorities that he and his colleagues had been abducted by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (IM), an armed group. The next day, the bodies of Singh, his driver, Aribam Rajen Sharma, and his associate, Yumnam Token Singh, were recovered by the authorities. According to his relatives, the NSCN (IM) had earlier made extortion demands on Singh, and has claimed responsibility for the killings.

"Five decades of rights violations by the government security forces don't justify the killings and extortion by armed groups in Manipur," said Ganguly. "These groups share the blame for Manipur's lawlessness."

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