SRINAGAR: In a first of its kind, Indian Army invoked the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) to defend itself against prosecution in a case concerning tree cutting. However, the court dismissed the Army’s argument, stating that the AFSPA does not cover disputes related to tree cutting, reported The Tribune.
According to The Tribune, the legal battle began when Ghulam Rasool Wani, a resident of Bandipora, filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for trees that the Army had cut on his land. The Army had taken control of the land in 2001.
The Union government, relying on the AFSPA, refused to provide compensation, arguing that no legal action can be taken against the Army without proper sanction from the Central government.
Advocate Karnail Singh, representing the Union government, argued that Section 7 of the AFSPA prohibits any prosecution, lawsuit, or legal proceeding against the Army without prior sanction from the Central government. However, Singh did not dispute the fact that the Army is in possession of the land and regularly pays rent to the landowner.
Advocate Shafeeq Ahmad, representing Wani, as per The Tribune argued that the compensation claim only pertains to the trees and does not fall under any section of the AFSPA. He contended that the armed forces are protected under Section 4 of the AFSPA solely for exercising powers in declared disturbed areas.
In a decisive ruling, Principal District Judge Amit Sharma determined that the suit does not fall under the special powers granted by the AFSPA. The court stated that the dispute is purely a civil matter since the Army acquired the property on a rental basis, and possession documents were executed between the parties.
The court order stated, “According to the viewpoint of this court, the status of the defendant in the present controversy is no more than a ‘tenant,’ and as tenants, they are not allowed to make any improvements or cut down existing trees on the land, which was rented out to the Army Authorities with effect from 2008. Therefore, this type of dispute is not covered under the definition clause A to E of Section 4 of the Armed Forces Special Act. Hence, there is no need for the plaintiff to obtain sanction from the central government before filing a suit in such types of disputes.”
The court also observed that the land documents, which have been in the Army’s possession since 2001, include information about the number of trees. It further emphasised that as tenants, the Army was not authorized to cut down any existing trees on the rented land.
Consequently, the plaintiff did not require government sanction to file the lawsuit. The court ruled in favour of the plaintiff, affirming that the suit is admissible. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for July 4, 2023.
It is worth noting that the AFSPA has primarily been used to prevent prosecutions in civilian courts for human rights violations.
(Photograph used in this report is not linked with the details of the report and is merely representational.)