International rights body Amnesty International and Srinagar-based lawyers’ body on Wednesday took a sharp note of the Supreme Court direction in the Pathribal case, in which five civilians were killed allegedly by the army in 2000, saying “the court has contradicted a reported statement by its justices in February 2012 that army personnel suspected of murder should be placed in front of a civil judge.”
“Special powers that allow India’s armed forces suspected of involvement in extra-judicial killings to sidestep the civilian courts have been reinforced in a disappointing court ruling over the notorious killings of five Kashmiri civilians 12 years ago,” said Ramesh Gopalakrishnan, Amnesty International’s India researcher.
On Tuesday, the SC endorsed the army viewpoint that a prior permission of the central government is needed to prosecute army officers. It said the army will decide in eight weeks whether the officer accused of fake encounter will be court martialled or face criminal trial.
“The ruling is a major setback – not only for victims in this case but for other victims unlawfully killed by army or paramilitary forces in Jammu and Kashmir,” said Gopalakrishnan.
The option of a court martial, Amnesty said, allows these army officials to continue to avoid judgment in court of law.
The CBI in its response to the court claimed to have sufficient evidence to show that the killings were extrajudicial executions and ‘cold-blooded murder’. Eight army officials are facing charges in local courts in Jammu and Kashmir.
“The ruling should have taken into account the evidence provided by the CBI; by giving the first option to the army for a court martial, this ruling reinforces immunity from prosecution in other cases of alleged extra-judicial killings in J-K,” said Gopalakrishnan.
The Amnesty said the Indian authorities must restore public confidence in the rule of law, and ensure justice for the victims of the Pathribal killings. “Impunity for human rights violations by the army and paramilitary forces under ‘special powers’ legislation must stop,” said the Amnesty statement.
The Kashmir Bar Association too expressed disappointment over the court direction. “The verdict has dismayed the public expectations. It has given absolute immunity to the army and other force personnel from prosecution in civil and criminal offences,” said Bar general secretary GN Shaheen.
The Bar has expressed apprehensions that “the judgment will embolden army and other force personnel operating in Kashmir to go on killing spree without the fear of prosecution”.
The victim families are seeking trial in civilian court rather than in army court.