Kashmir's disappeared under the spotlight
16 November 2003
SRINAGAR: A year after Mufti Mohammad Syed took over as chief minister of Indian occupied Jammu and Kashmir state, critics are asking if he remembers the promises he made that brought him to power - a curb on human rights violations , greater transparency and accountability. These were part of the 17-point minimum programme he had presented to voters ahead of last year's election, which led to a new government in the state in November 2002. It also raised new hopes for new approaches to an end to violence and militancy in the Muslim- majority state, which Pakistan also lays claim to and which has caused three wars between the South Asian rivals. But what would Mufti say today to Abdul Ahad Sofi of Nainakadel, Srinagar, who has been desperately seeking his 22- year-old son Bashir Ahmad - 'abducted' by plainclothes security forces on June 17 this year? Sofi, a travelling shawl seller, is number 61 in the list of more than 100 missing since the Mufti government came to power in November, according to the Association of the Parents of the Disappeared (APDP). At 130 a.m. on Jun. 17, plainclothes men wearing black and one with a 'patka' or turban raided his house. Outside, near a few green Maruti Gypsy (Potohar) jeeps with no licence plates (unmarked vehicles), stood a massed group of uniformed men. 'We recognised the uniforms as belonging to the Border Security Force (BSF) as their bunker is nearby,' Hamida Sofi, Bashir's sister, told legal activists from New Delhi. The BSF has denied custody of Hamida's brother. The family has not gone to court. 'We don't have witnesses,' Hamida said, although Bashir was taken away in full view of the neighbourhood, past the corner police picket and nearby shrine. 'No one is ready to give statements'. A couple of months before Bashir Ahmad 'disappeared', Prime Minister Vajpayee paid a historic visit to Srinagar in April. He brought with him a cavalcade of media that turned their eye on the week-long hunger strike of families of the 'disappeared'. To the media, the chief minister said that there have been only 60 'disappearances' since 1990 and that the rest of the so- called 'missing' had gone across the border. But only in March 2003, his law minister, Muzaffar Baig, had stated that there were reportedly 3,744 missing of whom 135 had been declared dead up to June 2002. Subsequently in June, Home Minister Khalid Najeed Suhrawady told the state assembly that 3,931 people were said to be missing. 'It was expected that Mufti's government would highlight its predecessor's failings,' observed Parvez Imroze, the patron of the APDP. However, in August, APDP charged during a candlelight protest that during Mufti's regime, 84 persons had become victims of forced disappearances. In September, the APDP published an expanded list of 109 persons. Several were children as young as 10. Within three weeks, a police spokesman said that at least 22 of the missing were at home, five had been killed on the Line of Control, six joined the militants, two were abducted by militants and one was in jail. Efforts at independent verification by legal activists from Delhi revealed that three of the 'disappeared' - No 8. Tariq Ahmad Lone, No 25 Zahoor Ahmad Sheikh and No 26 Arshed Ahmad Sheikh had indeed been released after being held in secret illegal detention for 10 to 15 days. According to Ghulam Mohiuddin Lone, his son Tariq was taken away on Dec. 21 last year at 7 a.m. by 10 to 20 soldiers from the BSF camp in Wadoora. BSF camp officials denied that he was in their custody. Later, the 18-year-old Tariq was released through the J Branch, the office of the Intelligence Bureau who handed him over to the police after 12 days in illegal custody. Zahoor, 20, and Arshad Ahmad Sheikh, 18, were taken away on Mar. 19. The family was at dinner when at about 10.30 p.m., a few persons belonging to the Special Operations Group of Kashmir police climbed over the wall, broke down the door, nabbed Zahoor and Arshad and took them to their headquarters. According to their father Abdul Hamid Sheikh, the police thought the two could reveal the whereabouts of his eldest son Ejaz, who had gone 'missing' in 1999. Ejaz was then 16 years old. After two weeks, Abdul Hamid was called to the Raj Bagh Police Station. Both his sons were handed over. No reasons for the arrest were given. Abdul Hamid himself has been picked up and held in illegal custody on at least 10 different occasions during the past few years. Parvez Imroze of APDP, a Kashmiri legal activist, saw the government's prompt response as evidence of the newfound seriousness of the new state administration but says that forced disappearances were 'still rampant in Jammu and Kashmir under the Mufti government'. The police claimed that five of the disappeared persons had been killed on the Line of Control trying to leave Indian- controlled Kashmir, but Imroze asked 'Where are the bodies, why have they not been handed over to their kin as per the law?' Also, the relatives of the six disappeared from Zandfaran (Baramulla) and Mohu Mangat (Banihal) deny the police claim that they have become militants. Imroze explains that the list was compiled from newspaper reports, complaints by relatives and court cases. Verification process is fraught with danger as evident in the killing of human rights defenders, including some with the APDP. Relatives are fearful of coming forward. APDP claims that at least 8,000 people have been made to disappear since the insurgency in Kashmir began in 1990. In April 2001, it submitted a list of 364 forced and involuntary disappearances to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Justice A.S.Anand has since asked the state government to submit details of the system of recording and investigating allegations of disappearances. He also asked about what measures were being taken to stop enforced disappearances. The continuance of a system characterised by extraordinary laws created to fight the insurgency, like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Public Safety Act of Jammu and Kashmir (PSA) and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), 'have produced an environment of impunity and lawlessness', argues Tapan Bose of the Committee for Initiative on Kashmir. People are routinely arrested and detained for up to two years under the Public Safety Act, and some detainees are re- arrested immediately on their release under fresh warrants. The law requires that the person taken into custody by the armed forces be handed over to civilian police within the shortest possible time. Instead, argues Bose, ' a systemic pattern of abuse emerges - the armed forces do not disclose, indeed they conceal their identity, no record is maintained of who is conducting the arrest'. ' The armed forces do not respond to summons from the courts even in habeas corpus petitions. The High Court of Jammu and Kashmir has been forced to close hundreds of cases without ever finding what happened to disappeared persons because of non- cooperation of the armed forces,' Bose added. 'Apparently the armed forces have been placed beyond the purview of the judiciary. And investigations of illegal detentions end when 'bodies' appear,' he continued. -Dawn-InterPress News Service.