In a 2020 fake encounter case, Captain Bhoopendra Singh of the Rashtriya Rifles was convicted along with two other informants for murdering three civilians to claim a bounty of ₹20 lakh given by the Indian government to kill militants in Jammu and Kashmir.
A 2012report by the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) made a damning revelation about the impunity enjoyed by Indian armed forces stationed in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) is one of the only functional organisations in J&K that documents human rights abuses by Indian armed forces and militants belonging to various local and Pakistan-supported outfits.
The recent November 9 Order of a two-member tribunal headed by Justice Rajendra Menon suspending the life sentence of Captain Bhoopendra Singh of the Rashtriya Rifles, who was convicted of killing three Kashmiri labourers in the Shopian fake encountercase in 2020, will only serve to reinforce this indictment of impunity.
Captain Singh had been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment by an army’s summary general court martial last year.
In his appeal before the tribunal, Captain Singh’s counsel Major (Retd) Sudhanshu S. Pandey argued: “Such conviction of a young officer in this manner would have a very demoralising effect on other officers who are sacrificing their lives for the nation.”
The tribunalfound that the Order of the general court martial was “perverse” and “improper”. While granting bail to Singh, the tribunal alsosaid that the evidence led by the prosecution is “not convincing enough to hold the applicant guilty of the charges levelled against him”.
Facts of the case
In late July 2020, it was widelyreported by Indian news media that three militants had been killed in an encounter in Amshipora, Shopian on the intervening night of July 18 and 19. The encounter was reported to be the second in two days during the visit of Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh to the state.
The Jammu and Kashmir policeannounced: “During the search, terrorists fired upon army personnel and an encounter started… During the encounter, three unidentified terrorists were killed… The identification and affiliation of the killed terrorists is being ascertained.”
In the beginning, when the families of the three persons did not hear from them, they thought they might have been detained under Covid-induced lockdown, but when they were unable to reach them for three weeks, they filed a missing person report.
As the photos of the three alleged “hard-core terrorists” went viral on the internet, their families came to know about the Shopian encounter and claimed that the three persons who had been killed, among whom was a minor, were in fact their family members.
The family members demanded that the bodies should be exhumed, DNA testing should be done on them, and they should be returned to the families.
Since April 2020, the Indian government has instituted a policy ofnot handing over bodies of militants killed in anti-insurgency operations to their families.
The J&K police instituted a special investigation team (SIT) to look into the matter. The army also constituted acourt of inquiry in this regard.
The police investigation revealed that the three were indeed seasonal labourers. They had travelled from the Rajouri district to work in apple and walnut orchards in Shopian.
On September 25, 2020, the SIT identified the three as Abrar Ahmed (25), Imtiyaz Ahmed (20) and Mohammed Ibrar (16).
The army alsoconcludedtheir internal inquiry which suggested that Captain Singh had exceeded the powers vested in him under the AFSPA.
The army enquiry also stated that the dos and don’ts of Chief of Army Staff, as approved by the Supreme Court, were not followed during the ‘operation’.
On December 28, 2020, the SITfiled a 1,400-page chargesheet against Captain Singh before the district court in Shopian.
In the chargesheet, charges were framed against two civilian informants, Tabish Nazir Malik and Basheer Ahmed Lone, who along with Captain Singh had staged the encounter.
Lone was later made an approver in the case.
It was stated in the chargesheet that Captain Singh along with his accomplice first abducted the three labourers, took them in a pre-arranged vehicle to a secluded spot near an orchard and shot them dead.
Captain Singh, who portrayed himself as Major Basheer Khan, also planted weapons and materials on them to brand them as terrorists.
The encounter was staged so that Captain Singh and his accomplices could claim a ₹20 lakh, which was given as a reward by the Indian army for killing militants in J&K.
While the SIT arrested the two informants, Singh could not be arrested because of the AFSPA, which requires a prior sanction from the Union government before instituting criminal proceedings against armed forces personnel.
In December 2020, Indian army announced that they would conduct a court-martial against Singh. This prevented Singh from being tried by regular courts.
The impunity enjoyed by armed forces in J&K
The AFSPA gives wide powers to the armed forces to search, seize, and arrest in “disturbed areas”. The law grants impunity to Indian armed forces personnel from any legal consequences if the personnel kills anyone on the suspicion of the person being a terrorist.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has categoricallystated that the Union government will never allow the repeal of the Act.
In its reportStructures of Violence, the JKCCS underlines that a specific form of violence that is widespread in J&K is extrajudicial killings.
The report says that “the phenomenon of encounters in J&K is closely connected to that of unmarked graves as in numerous cases the police marks ‘militants’ killed as ‘unidentified’.”
The report points out numerous documented cases, including those recorded by J&K State Human Rights Commission, where bodies that have been buried as unidentified militants by the forces “later were found to be in fact civilians”.
In another report by the JKCCS,Alleged Perpetrators, it is stated that the “defining feature of human rights violations in the last 22 years in Jammu and Kashmir is that in the name of countering militant violence the Indian state authorises armed forces to carry out any kind of operation.”
The report unravels the impunity enjoyed by State actors, the lack of sanctions by the Union government for initiating legal proceedings, the defence of court martial and the problems of incentivising impunity.
The report says: “In J&K, where the line between militants and non-combatants is itself continuously ignored, and the entire population is held suspect, incentives prove highly problematic.”
The report calls attention to the information received under theRight to Information Act, 2005 (RTI) on awards (non-monetary) and out-of-turn promotions to the Jammu and Kashmir Police for anti-militancy operations since 1989.
The RTI applications revealed that 2,226 police officials had received out of turn promotions for anti-militancy operations as per a Government Order of 2000 for “consistently exceptional performance on the anti-militancy front”.
The report reveals an exhaustive list of victims of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings and the names of the alleged perpetrators.
In another reportBuried Evidence, the JKCCS details the mass graves that were identified in the northwestern part of the Kashmir Valley, near the Line of Control. Out of these, 88 percent were unnamed.
The report states that Indian armed forces and Jammu and Kashmir Police “routinely claim the dead buried in unknown and unmarked graves to be ‘foreign militants or terrorists’”.
The report alleges that mass and intensified extrajudicial killings is a sustained and widespread offensive by the military and paramilitary institutions of the Indian State against civilians in Jammu and Kashmir.
The JKCCS is currently underinvestigation for alleged terror activities and promoting secessionist activities in J&K while Captain Singh will walk as a free man.