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Inquiry into rights abuses in Kashmir

Independent investigators start the first international inquiry into human rights abuse allegations in Kashmir.

Protesters demand an inquiry into the recent discovery of a large number of unmarked graves in Kashmir.
Protesters demand an inquiry into the recent discovery of a large number of unmarked graves in Kashmir.

SRINAGAR, INDIA // An independent team of investigators has started the first international inquiry into allegations of systematic human rights abuses in Indian Kashmir. Rights activists started gathering evidence from Kashmiris in April of abuses alleged to have been carried out by both the Indian army and militants fighting Indian rule in the divided Himalayan region. They hope the body of evidence will force New Delhi to take steps to stop any future human rights abuses and provide redress for victims.

More than 60,000 people have been killed since 1989 when militants launched their rebellion in India's only Muslim-majority state. The Indian government started counterinsurgency operations in the region the following year. The militants are fighting for independence for Kashmir or a merger with neighbouring Pakistan. About 200,000 soldiers are deployed in the region, according to the Indian army.

Parvez Imroz, an advocate in the state high court and co-founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a Srinagar-based coalition of 10 rights groups that launched the fact finding mission, said it was necessary because the government had failed to stop atrocities being committed in the region. The aim, Mr Imroz said, was to make more people aware of what was happening in Kashmir. "Truth becomes a casualty in conflict. If we place the truth, the facts, before the international community and Indian civil society, then let them take a position. Let them have the facts. If they have to indict the state, the non-state actors, then let them do that.

"If the people of India understand the Indian army is not glamorous, civil society will force them to ?morally indict these people. This will be a landmark." About 200 people, including doctors, lawyers, sociologists, geologists, economists, journalists and anthropologists from India, the United States, Europe and other parts of Asia are part of 15 fact finding teams, called the international people's tribunal.

The teams, along with 40 specialists from Indian Kashmir, will spend the next year travelling across the region to investigate allegations of extra-judicial killings, torture and rape and whether human rights abuses are systematic. The IPT has no statutory powers or government mandate. In a sign of the difficulties the activists face in their investigations, police opened fire at Mr Imroz's home on Monday, the group said in a statement e-mailed to reporters. Mr Imroz was unhurt and has fled his home, they said. A spokesman for the Kashmiri police could not be reached for comment. The fact finding mission will focus on human rights abuses alleged to have been carried out between Nov 2003, when India and Pakistan - who both claim the region in its entirety - agreed to a ceasefire, with supporting investigations related to the period between 1989 and 2003.

Investigators will visit sites where human rights are alleged to have been committed, verify accounts through state, court and Indian army records and push the courts for access to information about the numbers of people whose deaths have been recorded. They will also study the effect of the heavy military presence on the lives of Kashmiris; examine accusations of sexual violence, torture and custodial deaths and study the prevalence and effect of land mines placed by the Indian army in areas near Kashmir's de facto border with Pakistan, the Line of Control.

Tribunal members also plan to investigate and catalogue the region's unmarked graves. In March this year, human rights workers documented more than 1,000 such graves in the region. The coalition estimates Kashmir has more than 4,000 unmarked graves and anticipates more could be found as it continues its research. Official figures vary, but the Srinagar-based Association of Parents of Disappeared People, which provides advice to families of missing people, estimates that between 8,000 and 10,000 Kashmiri men and boys have disappeared since the insurgency started. The majority have either been rounded up or arrested in counterinsurgency purges, it said. The army and the Jammu and Kashmir police say the missing men left Kashmir voluntarily or were recruited into the insurgency.

The activists began their investigation in April and are expected to finish at the end of 2009, when the panel will hand over its findings to the federal and state governments before publishing them as a report. "It's not just the report we compile, but after the report [we want to see] how we can influence the international institutions and global civil societies to pressurise the government of India," said Mr Imroz.

"It's the international community's responsibility, that if there are systematic human rights violations taking place anywhere in the world, they have to take a position. They have taken positions on East Timor [and] Kosovo. Kashmir can't be ignored simply because it's part of the largest democracy in the world. We want to place the truth before the community." Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a professor of comparative and Indian politics at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, blamed politics for the failure of the government to stop the violence.

"In Jammu and Kashmir, the state and federal governments are trying to suppress the people's movement, especially the federal government, and in the course of that, human rights abuses are being committed. They are trying to suppress the people's movements because they don't want an independent Kashmir," said Mr Mitra Chenoy. While the state has authorised several district magisterial inquiries into individual cases of human rights abuses in recent years, no follow up action has ever been taken, say members of the panel.

The Indian army disputes the existence of systemic rights abuse in Kashmir, but has investigated several allegations of abuse over the years. "So far, eight soldiers have been court-martialled and punished in the last 18 to 19 years in Jammu and Kashmir, with sentences ranging from one year in [civilian] prison to longer," said Lt Col Anil Kumar Mathur, a spokesman for the army for Jammu and Kashmir. He urged the commission to also look at violence perpetrated by the militants.

Officials at the state government were not available to comment. Onkar Kadia, a spokesman for the federal ministry of home affairs, refused to comment despite repeated requests. @Email:rsisodia@thenational.ae