Kashmiri women cry after the killing of Zahid Farooq in Srinagar on February 5, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

(New York) - The Indian authorities' arrest of a Border Security Force constable suspected of killing a Kashmiri teenager could be an important step to curtail security force abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also investigate and appropriately punish any senior officers implicated in the case, Human Rights Watch said.

Lakhvinder Kumar of the Border Security Force's 68th Battalion is being held as a suspect in the killing of 17-year-old Zahid Farooq in Srinagar, Kashmir on February 5, 2010, as he played cricket at a playground. Based on an internal inquiry by the Border Security Force, Kumar was suspended and handed over to the police, who have detained him. The killing led to widespread protests across Kashmir.

"It is extremely rare for the security forces in Kashmir to turn over one of their own to the civilian justice system," said Meenakshi Ganguly, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Now they should go a step further to see if senior officers were also responsible."

The killing of Zahid Farooq followed the death of 14-year-old Wamiq Farooq on January 31, who died when he was struck by a tear gas canister as the police tried to disperse a crowd protesting Indian rule in Kashmir.

Human Rights Watch has documented large numbers of cases of serious human rights abuses by both police and militants in the two-decade separatist conflict in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir state. Abuses have declined in recent years, but Kashmiris say that accountability for violations by government forces, including enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and killings, is essential for lasting peace.

The Indian military operates in Jammu and Kashmir under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which provides soldiers immunity from prosecution unless sanctioned by the government. The Border Security Force and other paramilitary forces usually refuse to allow civilian jurisdiction over their personnel and handle misconduct with internal tribunals. However, in a highly unusual decision, the Home Ministry in New Delhi has promised full cooperation to ensure that Zahid Farooq's killers are identified and prosecuted.

Protests over human rights violations often shut down much of the Kashmir valley. Human Rights Watch urged the security forces and those organizing such protests to take steps to prevent violence. The security forces have often used unnecessary force when they have responded to protesters hurling stones and otherwise engaging in violence by firing tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, and live ammunition to control the crowd. This has resulted in incidents such as the tragic death of the teenager stuck by a tear gas canister.

"For years, the security forces have protected their members from prosecution for human rights abuses," Ganguly said. "The promise that Zahid Farooq's killers will be identified and brought to justice is a long overdue step in addressing abuses by government forces."