The US Says Situation Improving In Kashmir But Civil Rights Issues Remain

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SRINAGAR: The Biden administration has said that the situating is improving in Jammu and Kashmir even as it admitted there are issues pertaining to civil rights and the freedom of speech. The assessment is part of the US state department’s annual human rights country reports for 2020.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US Vice President Joe Biden during former’s US visit a few years before Biden was elected as the President of USA

The report released by the Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Government of India has continued to “take steps to restore normalcy”.

Here are the relevant excerpts from the detailed report that was released by the US State Department on Tuesday:

“The government continued taking steps to restore normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir by gradually lifting some security and communications restrictions. The government released most political activists from detention. In January the government partially restored internet access; however, high-speed 4G mobile internet remained restricted in most parts of Jammu and Kashmir. The government began a process to redraw electoral constituencies but did not announce a timeline for local assembly elections. Local district development council elections took place in December in which a coalition of Kashmiri opposition parties won the majority of seats.

Killings by government and non-government forces, including insurgents and terrorists, were reported in Jammu and Kashmir, north-eastern states, and Maoist affected areas of the country. The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) reported the deaths of 63 civilians, 89 security force members, and 284 insurgents countrywide as a result of terrorism or insurgency attacks. The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) reported 229 killings in 107 incidents in the first six months of the year. JKCCS also reported 32 extrajudicial killings in the first half of the year in Jammu and Kashmir.

Formal charges have yet to be filed in the 2018 killing of Rising Kashmir editor in chief Shujaat Bukhari and his two police bodyguards. A police investigation alleged that terrorists belonging to Lashkar-e-Tayyiba targeted Bukhari in retaliation for his support of a government-backed peace effort. While a police special investigation team arrested three persons in 2019 “for their alleged role in arranging the logistics,” the perpetrators were still at large, and the case remained open.

Respect for the Integrity of the Person: Under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the central government may designate a state or union territory as a “disturbed area,” authorizing security forces in the state to use deadly force to “maintain law and order” and to arrest any person “against whom reasonable suspicion exists” without informing the detainee of the grounds for arrest. The law also provides security forces immunity from civilian prosecution for acts committed in regions under the AFSPA. In 2016 the Supreme Court stated that every death caused by the armed forces in a disturbed area, whether of a civilian or a terrorist suspect, should be investigated.

The AFSPA remained in effect in Nagaland, parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, and Assam, and a version of the law was in effect in Jammu and Kashmir. The AFSPA was renewed through January 2021 in Nagaland, which had been under the AFSPA for nearly six decades. Human rights organizations asserted the law is in violation of Article 21 of the constitution and continued to call for its repeal, citing numerous alleged human rights violations.

Nongovernmental forces, including organized insurgents and terrorists, committed numerous killings. Maoists in Jharkhand and Bihar continued to attack security forces and infrastructure facilities, including roads, railways, and communication towers. The SATP reported terrorist attacks resulted in the death of 99 civilians, 106 security force members, and 383 terrorists or insurgents during the year; this was the lowest numbers of civilians killed since the SATP began reporting this data in 2000. As of July terrorists killed six political party leaders in Jammu and Kashmir.

Disappearances: There were allegations of enforced disappearance by the Jammu and Kashmir police. Although authorities denied these charges and claimed no enforced disappearances had occurred since 2015, the International Federation for Human Rights reported that cases of enforced disappearances continued through 2019. The Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission ordered an investigation of enforced disappearances in 2018.

Torture: There were reports of security forces acting with impunity although members were also held accountable for illegal actions. In December the Indian Army indicted an officer and two others of extrajudicial killings in Jammu and Kashmir. Also, Jammu and Kashmir Police filed local charges against the accused. Additionally, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) may request information about cases involving the army and paramilitary forces.

Arrest Procedures: The Public Safety Act (PSA), which applies only in Jammu and Kashmir, permits authorities to detain persons without charge or judicial review for up to two years without visitation from family members. After extending her detention by three months during the year, authorities released former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti, who had been detained under the PSA. According to the JKCCS, 662 individuals were arrested under the PSA in 2019, of whom 412 remained under detention as of August. The government released most political activists from detention, although several Kashmiri politicians were reportedly detained in the period prior to the district development council elections in December.

Authorities in Jammu and Kashmir allowed detainees access to a lawyer during interrogation, but human rights groups documented that police routinely employed arbitrary detention and denied detainees further access to lawyers and medical attention.

In August 2019 parliament passed an amendment to the UAPA that allows the government to designate individuals as terrorists and provides new authorities to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to seize properties acquired from proceeds of terrorism. According to the Center for Law and Policy Research, the number of cases filed under the UAPA rose from 976 cases in 2014 to 1,182 cases in 2018. States and union territories with insurgent activity, including Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir, also saw an increase in the application of the UAPA.

On April 10, authorities arrested pregnant student leader Safoora Zargar under the UAPA for allegedly conspiring to incite the Delhi riots. The Delhi High Court released her on June 23 after the central government did not object to her release.

Fair Trial: The judicial system remained seriously overburdened and lacked modern case management systems, often delaying or denying justice. According to Department of Justice statistics released in September, there were 398 judicial vacancies in the 1,079 judicial positions on the country’s 25 high courts.

In April, Mohammed Yasin Malik, leader of the pro-independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), was arrested and charged with murder in the death of four Air Force officials in 1990. Malik was denied the right to be physically present in court. Human rights groups in Kashmir, including the JKCCS, expressed concern regarding whether Malik was receiving a fair trial.

In March 2019 the Ministry of Home Affairs declared the JKLF an unlawful organization for five years under the UAPA. A ministry statement accused Malik and the JKLF of participating in the “genocide” of Kashmiri Hindu Pandits in 1989, as well as the murder of air force personnel, kidnappings, and funding terrorism. Malik and the JKLF were involved in violence in the early 1990s until Malik renounced violent separatism in 1994 and declared a ceasefire.

Political Prisoners: There were reports of political prisoners and detainees. NGOs reported the central government held political prisoners and temporarily detained individuals in Jammu and Kashmir under the PSA. On September 15, the Ministry of Home Affairs informed parliament that 223 political leaders from Jammu and Kashmir, who had been detained after August 2019, remained in detention but added “no person is under house arrest.”

Abuse of Internal Conflict: On August 14, HRW called for an impartial investigation into the July 18 killing of three men by security forces in Jammu and Kashmir. The army claimed the men were militants killed in retaliatory gunfire in Shopian District. The family members identified the bodies from photographs circulated on social media and claimed they were laborers. The army instituted a court of inquiry into the killings, and on September 18, army officials stated the troops “exceeded powers vested under AFSPA.” The army initiated disciplinary proceedings against those involved in the incident.

Killings: Various domestic and international human rights organizations continued to express serious concern at the use of pellet guns by security forces for crowd control purposes in Jammu and Kashmir. In March the Jammu and Kashmir High Court dismissed the public interest litigation petition seeking a ban on the use of pellet guns on protesters, asserting that police have the right to administer force in self-defense when facing violent protests. Ministry of Home Affairs data and Srinagar hospital records showed that at least 18 individuals died from pellet gun injuries between July 2016 and February 2019.

Physical Abuse: A May 2019 report by the JKCCS and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons alleged that police, military, and paramilitary forces in Jammu and Kashmir used torture against civilians and opposition over the past four decades.

The report documented 432 testimonies from individuals who claimed to have been tortured. There were continued allegations of physical abuse and torture following the government’s enhanced security measures in Jammu and Kashmir after the August 2019 move to abrogate Article 370 of the constitution.

On August 30, there were violent clashes between security personnel and Shia Muslim marchers in Jammu and Kashmir during Muharram processions. Approximately 200 to 250 individuals and 30 to 40 police personnel were injured, according to several media reports.

Child Soldiers: No information was available on how many persons younger than 18 were serving in the armed forces.

Insurgent groups reportedly used children to attack government entities. In June the annual UN Children and Armed Conflict report outlined allegations that at least five children were recruited by, and joined, militant groups in Jammu and Kashmir, and at least two of these children were killed in encounters with security forces.

NGOs estimated at least 2,500 children were associated with insurgent armed groups in Maoist-affected areas as well as insurgent groups in Jammu and Kashmir.

According to the United Nations, 68 children between the ages of nine and 17 were detained by security services in Jammu and Kashmir on national security-related charges, including one for actual or alleged association with armed groups.

In January 2019 the Observer Research Foundation reported militant groups in Kashmir recruited juveniles. The foundation highlighted the conditions that encouraged minors in Jammu and Kashmir to join such groups. The report discussed the involvement of children in acts of violence, such as stone-pelting and arson, which was then followed by a heavy-handed crackdown by security forces.

It stated that, in the absence of a juvenile justice mechanism, the law-and-order apparatus failed to differentiate between children and adults, in turn provoking an ever greater degree of anger among the populace.

Other Conflict-related Abuse: On March 17, the Ministry of Home Affairs informed parliament’s lower house there were approximately 65,000 registered Kashmiri migrant families across the country. Tens of thousands of Hindus, known as Kashmiri Pandits, fled the Kashmir Valley after 1990 because of conflict and violent intimidation, including destruction of houses of worship, sexual abuse, and theft of property, by Kashmiri separatists.

The Prime Minister’s Development Package, announced in 2015, outlined a reconstruction plan for Jammu and Kashmir and included the creation of 3,000  state government jobs for Kashmiri migrants. On March 18, the minister of state for home affairs informed the upper house of parliament that the selection process had concluded for 1,781 posts and that 604 of the positions had been filled as of February 22.

Kashmir journalists protesting on Srinagar streets.

Freedom of Speech: AII’s report Jammu and Kashmir After One year of Abrogation of Article 370 documented 14 instances of detention, police interrogations, and assaults on journalists. The government also introduced a new media regulation policy in Jammu and Kashmir empowering local administration to determine “fake and antinational news” and to initiate related action against journalists.

On May 20, Srinagar Police summoned The Kashmir Walla editor Fahad Shah for covering an encounter between militants and security forces. Shah alleged police claimed his stories “maligned” police and subjected him to five hours of questioning. The Srinagar police summoned Shah again on July 9 and October 4 on the same matter.

In February the Kashmir Press Club stated security agencies had routinely deployed intimidation tactics such as threats, summonses, and physical attacks on journalists in Jammu and Kashmir. On February 8, journalists Naseer Ganai and Haroon Nabi were summoned to the police facility, where they were questioned for reporting on a statement by the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front.

In June the Jammu and Kashmir government released the Media Policy–2020, which authorizes the Directorate of Information and Publication Relations to “examine” the content of print, electronic, and other forms of media for “fake news, plagiarism, and unethical or antinational activities” in the name of law and order. Under the new media policy, government action could range from legal proceedings against journalists for “indulging in fake news, unethical or antinational activities, or plagiarism” to withholding advertisements to any media that “incite or tends to incite violence, question sovereignty and the integrity of India, or violate the accepted norms of public decency and behavior.”

On April 18, police in Kashmir booked photojournalist Masrat Zahra under the UAPA for indulging in “antinational activities” on social media. In a statement police accused Zahra of “uploading antinational posts with criminal intention, uploading posts that glorify antinational activities and dent the image of law enforcing agencies besides causing disaffection against the country.” Zahra maintained she was sharing archival images that had already been published in different local and international social media platforms. The investigation continued at year’s end.

On April 23, the Jammu and Kashmir cyber police filed a FIR against Kashmiri author and journalist Gowhar Geelani for “glorifying terrorism in Kashmir” through social media posts. The police statement said Geelani was “indulging in unlawful activities through his posts and writings on social media platforms which [were]prejudicial to the national integrity, sovereignty and security of India.”

Internet Freedom: According to NGO Software Freedom Law Center, the central and state governments shut down the internet in different locations 106 times in 2019 and 76 times as of December 21. The center reported the longest shutdown occurred between August 4, 2019, and March 4 in Jammu and Kashmir. Authorities restored mobile 2G services in April and landline internet in August. Mobile 3G and 4G connections remained blocked as of December, although intermittent access was restored in certain districts.

Kashmir artist Masood Hussain’s recent work making a demand for the restoration of high-speed internet for fighting the Coronavirus.

AII documented 67 instances of government-enforced internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir between January 14 and August 4. NGOs and professionals from the education and medical fields reported that frequent internet shutdown and denial of access to 4G internet presented problems to online education and COVID-19 mitigation measures.

In January the Supreme Court ruled that the indefinite shutdown of the internet in Jammu and Kashmir was illegal.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly: The law provides for freedom of assembly. Authorities often required permits and notification before parades or demonstrations, and local governments generally respected the right to protest peacefully. Jammu and Kashmir was an exception, where the state government sometimes denied permits to separatist political parties for public gatherings, and security forces reportedly occasionally detained and assaulted members of political groups engaged in peaceful protest

During periods of civil unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, authorities used the law to ban public assemblies and impose curfews.

Foreign Travel: The government may legally deny a passport to any applicant for engaging in activities outside the country “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of the nation.”

The trend of delaying issuance and renewal of passports to citizens from Jammu and Kashmir continued, sometimes up to two years. The government reportedly subjected applicants born in Jammu and Kashmir, including children born to military officers deployed there, to additional scrutiny and police clearances before issuing them passports.

The UN or Other International Bodies: The government continued to decline access by the United Nations to Jammu and Kashmir and limit access to the north-eastern states and Maoist-controlled areas. In an August statement, UN human rights experts called on the government “to take urgent action to address the alarming human rights situation in the territory.” The UN special rapporteurs noted that since August 2019, “the human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir has been in free fall,” and they were “particularly concerned that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many protesters are still in detention and internet restrictions remain in place.” The group appealed to the government “to schedule pending visits as a matter of urgency, particularly of the experts dealing with torture and disappearances.”

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