Murder of justice

The Army’s decision to let off five soldiers facing charges for killing five Kashmiri civilians in an alleged fake encounter at Pathribal in 2000 underscores its continuing unwillingness to bring to account its personnel indulging in extra-judicial executions and other crimes.

This will lay bare yet again the hollowness of Delhi’s oft-proclaimed ‘zero tolerance’ to extra-judicial crimes committed by security forces in Kashmir. It was in the wake of the massacre at Chittisingpura in Kashmir in March 2000 that the five soldiers are said to have killed five villagers of Pathribal and sought to pass them off as ‘foreign militants’ who carried out the killings. Those claims were contested from the start not just by Pathribal's residents but the state police, as well. It triggered an avalanche of outrage in Kashmir. Several protests later, the government initiated a CBI probe. The CBI charged the five soldiers with abduction, murder, conspiracy and destruction of evidence. It described the killings as ‘cold blooded murder.’ The Army appealed, arguing that under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA,) its personnel cannot be charged without the Centre’s permission. In 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the army’s contention and asked it to choose between court-martialling the soldiers and allowing their prosecution in civilian courts. The Army chose court martial and has now let off the five accused, claiming lack of evidence.

The Army must explain its decision to let off the five accused. What happened to the evidence the CBI found? Its cover-up of crime committed by its soldiers is not surprising, as this was its standard response in the countless instances of extra-judicial crimes its soldiers committed in Kashmir. Evidence was destroyed, witnesses intimidated and truth swept under the carpet. Victims were passed off as ‘dreaded terrorists’ and army officials happily pocketed rewards and awards for ‘bravery.’  AFSPA enabled, even encouraged, soldiers to commit crimes against civilians in India’s conflict zones, as it protects them from prosecution.

Recently, when the army initiated court martial proceedings against six of its personnel in the Machhil fake encounter case, it raised hope that the army was finally acting to bring to account its erring soldiers. Its decision in the Pathribal case has dashed those hopes. Since the army is unwilling to prosecute its own in criminal cases in Kashmir, civilian courts must be allowed to do so. AFSPA needs amendment on this score or better still, it must be repealed.

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