A military court sentenced five soldiers, including two officers, to life imprisonment on Thursday for the staged killing of three Kashmiri civilians and passing it off as an anti-militancy operation in Jammu and Kashmir's Machil sector in 2010.
It is a rare case of soldiers being punished in Kashmir where the army is an object of hate and the target of frequent protests because of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives it sweeping powers to search, arrest and shoot people.
The verdict, hailed by political parties in Kashmir but dismissed by some separatists as a political move with an eye on assembly elections, comes at a time when the army is under fire in the Valley for killing two Kashmiri boys mistaken for terrorists.
The men were allegedly lured by a former special police officer and his accomplices to Machil on the pretext of offering a job. They were later handed over to the army for Rs 50,000 each and shot dead by troops in a staged encounter near the border with Pakistan on April 29, 2010. The army described them as Pakistani militants trying to sneak in from the Machil sector along the Line of Control. Their bodies were exhumed on May 28, 2010.
The controversial Machil killings triggered widespread protests and bloodshed in the Kashmir Valley in which 113 people were killed. They also led to calls for scrapping the contentious AFSPA, which the army says is necessary for battling militancy in the state.
Chief minister Omar Abdullah welcomed the sentencing and called it a "watershed moment" in Kashmir's history.
"This is a watershed moment. No one in Kashmir ever believed that justice would be done in such cases. Faith in institutions disappeared. I hope that we never see such #Machil fake encounter type of incidents ever again and let this serve as a warning to those tempted to try," Abdullah tweeted.
The soldiers found guilty and recommended for life term are the commanding officer of 4 Rajput Regiment, the unit involved in the encounter, Colonel Dinesh Pathania, Captain Upendra, Havildar Devinder and Lance Naiks Arun Kumar and Lakhmi. All services benefits of the soldiers have also been suspended.
"The process is still not completed as the confirmation of the sentence is yet to be done by appropriate authority (Northern Army commander)," said an army officer in Delhi.
Court martial proceedings were ordered against six soldiers in December 2013; they ended in September this year. One of them was not found guilty. HT reported on December 26, 2013 that if convicted, the accused could get life imprisonment.
Kashmiri separatists said the verdict was a good beginning if it is followed by justice in similar rights abuse cases.
"It's very positive. We welcome it but the real test lies if justice is done in other cases like Gaw Kadal and Hawal massacres that left more than 100 dead. It's good to make troops accountable," moderate Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq told HT.
But some Kashmiri separatists said the sentence was a political move aimed at assembly elections in the state as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is hoping to expand its support to the Muslim-dominated Valley where it has no base.
"The elections are round the corner. There is political design in the sudden army magnanimity. India was never serious in delivering justice in Kashmir. Then it should do justice in hundreds of other such cases. The biggest justice is granting the right of self-determination to people," said Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Geelani.
(Additional inputs by Rahul Singh in New Delhi)
Watch:Victims' families satisfied with verdict
Timeline of the case:
April 29, 2010: Relatives of three civilians, all residents of Nadihal village in north Kashmir, file a missing persons report
April 30, 2010: Army claims it has killed three infiltrators at Machil near the Line of Control
May 28, 2010: Bodies are exhumed after relatives identify the clothes of the victims in a police station.
June 2010: Chief judicial magistrate records statements of a senior police officer and three constables from north Kashmir’s Kalaroos police station. The army also starts Court of Inquiry against the accused soldiers.
December 2011: The army invokes the Army Act to seek transfer of Machil fake encounter case from criminal court to court martial on grounds that accused army personnel were on active duty
December 2013: The army announces court martial of six accused soldiers.