Colonel, Major Given Life Sentence In Fake Encounter Case

13 November 2014
The Asian Age

Srinagar: The army has sentenced a colonel and a major to life imprisonment for the 2010 murder of three civilians after falsely branding them infiltrating militants in a case that led to widespread outrage and possibly the summer unrest that followed. Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah, who faces a tricky multi-phase election that starts later this month, called the Machil fake encounter verdict a 'watershed moment' in the state's human rights history. An army officer said the verdict - that also jailed for life five jawans - 'is subject to confirmation by the northern army command'. Rights activists cautioned that it was too early to welcome the decision, pointing out that civilian courts have often acquitted soldiers found guilty of rights violations. 'This is because of the system of immunity prevailing here,' activist Khurram Parvez said. 'We will have to see whether these men are really punished. Also, one must note that this is one of the thousands of cases of rights abuse involving the army and other forces.' The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) provides immunity to security personnel. Defence sources said a General Court Martial convicted Col. D.K. Pathania, then commanding officer of the 4 Rajput regiment, Maj. Upendra Singh and the five jawans for conspiring to kill the three civilians in a staged encounter. The court martial was presided over by Brigadier Deepak Mehra of the Kupwara-based 68 Mountain Brigade and had eight members. The army had in early 2010 claimed to have killed the three men they said were militants trying to infiltrate the Line of Control. But it soon emerged that the three - Shahzad Ahmad Khan, Mohammad Shafi Lone and Riyaz Ahmad Lone of Nadihal Rafiabad, Sopore - had been promised decent money by the army to work as porters. The state government claims the incident was a trigger behind the 2010 summer strife that left 120 people dead, although it is widely believed the agitation started after a youth died in police firing in Srinagar amid seething anger over the Machil killings. Investigations by police in 2011 revealed the three were taken to Machil on the LoC and killed in a staged encounter, in which Col. Pathania 'had no direct role in the operation, though... there was a conspiracy with a common intention'. The investigations also revealed that two local residents working for the army - Bashir and another civilian called Abdul Hameed Bhat - were paid Rs 50,000 for luring the slain men into the trap. The two have been arrested and are facing trial in a civilian court. Security forces are entitled to cash prizes and promotions for killing militants and there have been complaints earlier too that civilians were killed after being branded as militants for such rewards. A police chargesheet filed in a court in Sopore had indicted Pathania and some others. But the army had denied calls for trying them in civilian courts on the ground that they enjoyed immunity. But it later removed Pathania from the command and suspended Maj. Upendra pending an inquiry. The officers and the jawans, who have not been arrested yet, can appeal in a civilian court if the northern army command confirms the verdict. Omar, who had stepped up his campaign for withdrawal of the controversial AFSPA after the 2010 killings, tweeted: 'This is a watershed moment. No one in Kashmir ever believed that justice would be done in such cases. 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.' The army's record in dealing with rights violations in Kashmir is poor. More than 120 soldiers and officers found guilty of rights violations have been punished over a period of 20 years ending December 2013. During this period, the army had received 1,524 complaints, of which 42 were found to be true. The rest - over 97 per cent - were dismissed as false.