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India: In Aftermath of Riots, Support Sexual Assault Victims

Victims Fear Reprisals; Authorities Need to Map Relief and Rehabilitation Plan

(New York) – Indian authorities should properly investigate all crimes, including allegations of sexual assault and gang rape during last month’s communal violence in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Human Rights Watch said today.

Authorities should also develop a plan for prompt relief, return or resettlement, and reparations for the riot-displaced and create a secure environment for investigation and prosecution.

Reports of sexual assault have started to surface following the September communal violence in Muzaffarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh that killed more than 50 people and displaced tens of thousands. Many, including girls, are still missing. So far, five criminal complaints of gang rape and two cases of sexual harassment have been registered by the local Uttar Pradesh police.

Indian activists who have visited riot-affected communities report that other Muslim women may have suffered sexual assault, including rape, but have not registered criminal complaints because of the fear of reprisals, stigma, and a lack of faith in state institutions. They are therefore unable to access crucial services including psychosocial counseling, legal aid, emergency medical care, and reproductive health services responsive to the effects of sexual violence.

“The Uttar Pradesh government needs to urgently create an environment for victims to come forward and seek justice,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Rape victims in communal violence take time to find the confidence to come forward, leaving them without crucial psychological, medical, and other support.”

The September 7 outbreak of communal violence between Hindu and Muslim communities occurred in Muzaffarnagar and spread to surrounding districts of Uttar Pradesh state after a violent altercation that killed two Hindus and a Muslim. The incident, however, sparked rumors of threatened Muslim violence. Hindus from the Jat community, incited by inflammatory speeches from political leaders in a massive gathering, started attacking Muslim communities.

The violence lasted three days, a curfew was imposed, and the Indian army was deployed to restore law and order. By then thousands of Muslims had fled their homes and many are still housed in makeshift relief camps.

In a complaint to the police, one woman described howshe tried to escape the attack on her home by Jat men, but five of them caught and threatened her with a weapon. They forced her inside a house and raped her. She registered her complaint nearly three weeks after the incident, explaining she did not come forward earlier because of fear. All the women who came forward have identified the perpetrators of gang rape.

Instead of taking steps to create an environment that builds the confidence of rape victims, initial responses by police officers recording criminal complaints indicated the opposite. When Human Rights Watch spoke to two officers in charge of the police stations in Muzaffarnagar where the sexual abuse complaints have been filed, both of them raised questions over the legitimacy of complaints pointing to the delay in registering them.

The failure to provide proper rehabilitation and a secure environment for victims to seek justice and reparations exposes serious administrative lapses by Uttar Pradesh state authorities.

“A month after the riots took place, the Uttar Pradesh government has still not set out a concrete plan for proper relief, rehabilitation, and reparations,” said Ganguly. “The authorities need to assess the extent of damage, create a secure environment for reporting abuses, and provide services to victims.”

The Uttar Pradesh state authorities should set up camps with adequate services for the displaced. Services in the camps should be in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). According to the UN Guiding Principles such services should be developed with the full and free participation of displaced communities and without discrimination. At a minimum, services should guarantee an adequate standard of living, essential food and potable water, basic shelter and housing, appropriate clothing, and essential medical services and sanitation.

Map plan; put in place law to deal with communal violence
Simultaneously, state authorities should develop a longer-term plan to assist communities to return or resettle, and to recover their properties. Where such recovery is impossible, the state authorities should assist affected communities in obtaining appropriate compensation or other forms of reparation as appropriate.

A plan for reparation should be mapped in consultation with riot-affected communities and rights groups working with them. It should be in accordance with the UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law. According to these principles, compensation should be provided for any economically assessable damage, including lost opportunities such as employment, education, and social benefits; and material damages and loss of earnings, including loss of earning potential.

The relief and reparation plans should take into account the specific needs of women, especially victims of sexual violence residing in these camps. Care should be taken to design relief and reparation programs in consultation with women, including rape victims, to address their concerns about trauma, stigma, fear of reprisals, and the communal violence’s long-term impact on their lives. Reproductive and sexual health services and psychosocial support should be provided to all women who need them – whether they are victims of sexual violence or not. The World Health Organization guidelines for medico-legal care for victims of sexual violence should be followed which state that the health and welfare of a survivor of sexual violence is “the overriding priority” and that the provision of forensic services cannot take precedence over health needs.

“Uttar Pradesh state authorities have set up a special investigation team to look into crimes,” Ganguly said. “But nearly a month after the announcement very little is known about the team, its approach to addressing sexual violence in a gender-sensitive manner, or the resources at its disposal to ensure victim and witness protection.”

State authorities should immediately make public and disseminate information about the special investigation team and the resources made available to conduct a thorough and impartial criminal investigation, including its ability to take victim and witness protection measures.

India should also enact a strong law to prevent and respond to communal violence in the country in consultation with rights activists who have experience assisting victims of communal violence. Such a law should be in compliance with well-established international human rights principles, said Human Rights Watch. These include state accountability for failure to prevent and respond to communal riots, including command or superior responsibility, non-discrimination, principles of relief, return, and resettlement in line with UN Guiding Principles, and the right to remedy and reparation in line with UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on Remedy and Reparation.  

“Despite riot after riot, Indian authorities have not learned to prevent such violence, assist victims, or ensure justice,” Ganguly said. “An effective law to deal with communal violence is long overdue and now is the time to move quickly to put it in place.” 

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