India: Ruling Boosts Hope for Victims of Special Powers Act

Jhumur Deb
Guwahati, India
2016-07-12
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160712-IN-manipur-court-620.jpg Indian students from Manipur protest the July 11, 2004, killing Thangjam Manorama, Aug. 13, 2004.
AFP

Twelve years have passed since Doren Thangjam, a resident of Manipur state in northeastern India, laid eyes on the bullet-ridden body of his sister, who was allegedly raped and killed by Indian security forces.

Now, he says he can finally see a glimmer of hope for justice after the Indian Supreme Court on Friday ordered a probe into more than 1,500 suspected extra-judicial killings, including that of his sister, Thangjam Manorama, under a decades-old military emergency law in force in Manipur.

“It has been [a] long 12 years. No one responsible for the brutality committed on my sister has been punished. But now, I am happy that the judiciary has taken note of the extra-judicial executions in Manipur in the name of AFSPA [Armed Forces Special Powers Act],” Thangjam told BenarNews on Monday, the anniversary of his sister’s death.

The AFSPA of 1958 – in force in Jammu & Kashmir state as well as the conflict-torn northeastern states of Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland – gives security forces sweeping powers, including allowing personnel to make warrantless arrests, to enter and search any premises and to shoot any suspect.

The controversial law, which has faced criticism over human rights violations, also provides immunity from prosecution for soldiers involved in counter-terror operations.

“I have no hope that my sister’s killers will be brought to book. But the recent court ruling will hopefully prevent more such atrocities in the future,” Thangjam, 33, said during a phone interview from Imphal, Manipur’s capital.

 ‘We are all Manorama’s mothers’

Thangjam (pictured) said six uniformed personnel of the 17th Assam Rifles, a paramilitary unit, barged into his family’s Imphal home on July 10, 2004, and dragged away his sister.

The next morning, Manorama’s corpse was found in a nearby field, he said. An autopsy revealed semen marks on her clothes, suggesting that she was gang-raped before being shot.

The Assam Rifles claimed she was shot while trying to escape, but no soldier involved in the operation has been identified.

Days after her killing, which sparked widespread protests in Manipur and New Delhi, dozens of middle-aged women marched naked in Imphal, shouting, “Indian Army, rape us too. We are all Manorama’s mothers.”

While ordering a probe into Manorama’s death and 1,527 other alleged encounter-killings in Manipur between 2000 and 2012, the apex court said, “It is necessary to know the truth so that law is tempered with justice.

“The exercise for knowing the truth mandates ascertaining whether fake encounters or extra-judicial executions have taken place and if so, who are the perpetrators of the human rights violations and how can the next of kin be commiserated with and what further steps ought to be taken.

“If members of our armed forces are deployed and employed to kill citizens of our country on the mere allegation or suspicion that they are ‘enemy,’ not only the rule of law but our democracy would be in grave danger,” it said, while setting a hearing date for early next month.

Judges M.B. Lokur and U.U. Lalit also noted that the situation in Manipur, where the AFSPA has remained in force for nearly six decades, was “at best an internal disturbance and there is no threat to the security of the country or a part thereof either by war or an external aggression or an armed rebellion.”

But army sources say that more than 50 separatist groups are active in Manipur.

Necessary law?

Advocate Babloo Loitongbam, director of Human Rights Alert, who is fighting the case on behalf of the Extra Judicial Execution Victims’ Families Association of Manipur (EEVFAM), said he was partly satisfied with the court’s observation.

“We shall have to wait and see what the court decides on our demand for a special investigation team to probe all 1,528 cases individually. The real sting has yet to come on the nature of investigations of these cases,” Loitongbam said in a statement on Saturday.

Loitongbam is the official spokesman for Manipur-based activist Irom Sharmila, who has staged a hunger strike of nearly 16 years to protest the AFSPA and faces charges of attempted suicide – a crime in India.

Sharmila, 44, began her protest two days after members of the Assam Rifles allegedly shot and killed 10 civilians waiting at a bus stop on the outskirts of Imphal on Nov. 2, 2000. She has since refused solid food or water but has been force-fed through her nose at a hospital in Imphal, where she is jailed.

Sharmila had blamed the AFSPA for an attack on an army convoy in Manipur’s Chandel district in June 2015 when 20 soldiers were killed.

“Only when the AFSPA is repealed will such attacks stop. If the government removes excessive forces from the region, there won’t be any targets or reason for such attacks, Sharmila, known as the Iron lady of Manipur, had told BenarNews following the June attack.

However, a top official of Assam Rifles, which is deployed in the northeastern states, said the AFSPA should remain in force across Manipur.

“Even though the situation today may be better, continuation of the AFSPA is necessary to enable security forces to operate freely and thereby keep the insurgency in check,” Lt. Gen. Harminderjit Singh Sachdev, director of the paramilitary unit, told BenarNews.

“At the same time, Assam Rifles has over a period sensitized its troops regarding human rights and exercising restraint,” he said.

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