September 2004 News

In Kashmir, Abuses Bruise Hopes For Peace

5 September 2004
The Washington Post

Gund Dachina: At first, said Syed Rehman Mir, the policemen treated him with the deference he had come to expect as a senior government doctor in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. They graciously accepted his offer of tea, he recalled, and assured him they just had a few questions. Would he mind accompanying them to the station house for half an hour? The good manners didn't last. Accused of aiding Pakistani-backed Islamic militants in their fight against Indian forces in the region, Mir, 42, was detained and tortured over three days in early August, he said in an interview last week. Among other methods, he said, interrogators applied an electric current to his toes and genitals and used a length of wood to crush his thighs, causing wounds and deep bruises. 'They were not allowing me to cry because they were putting a cloth in my mouth,' said Mir, whose story was corroborated by medical records and photographs of his injuries. 'It was horrible. I was praying to God that I should die.' Eight months after India and Pakistan initiated formal negotiations to end more than half a century of hostility, much of it bearing on their competing claims to Kashmir, there has been little discernible reduction in human rights abuses by Indian security forces that have been waging a counterinsurgency campaign in the region since 1989, according to human rights monitors, Kashmiri political leaders and government data. The continuing abuses, coupled with recent statements by Indian officials to the effect that Kashmir's territorial status is nonnegotiable, have sown doubts in both Kashmir and Pakistan about whether India's new government - which recently completed its first 100 days in power - is sincere about resolving the Kashmir conflict or is merely buying time. Estimates of the number of people killed in the insurgency range from 30,000 to 60,000. Indian officials say they are committed to settling the dispute, but only after Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, fulfills repeated pledges to end state support for Islamic militants who continue to cross from Pakistani-held Kashmir into the Indian side of the region, albeit in lower numbers than in the past. Against that backdrop, the optimism that accompanied the start of peace negotiations in both India and Pakistan is giving way to fear of renewed tensions between two nuclear powers that have already fought three wars - two over Kashmir - and nearly fought a fourth in 2002. In New Delhi on Sunday, Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, began two days of talks to assess the progress of the negotiations. Just as the Pakistanis 'fear that India is stringing them along on Kashmir, here there is also a sense that they're not going to give up violence as an instrument of negotiation,' said C. Raja Mohan, a foreign affairs columnist for the Hindu, a New Delhi newspaper. Mohan said, however, that he remained hopeful about the negotiations because 'neither side can afford failure at this stage.' The Kashmir dispute dates to 1947, when the British quit the subcontinent and gave the rulers of its semi-autonomous states a choice between joining the new nations of India or Pakistan. Although the state formally known as Jammu and Kashmir was - and remains - predominantly Muslim, its Hindu maharajah elected to stay with India. Pakistan, which controls a portion of the state, has never recognized his choice. After local separatists launched their rebellion in 1989, Islamic militants based in Pakistan and supported by that country's military intelligence service joined the fray, causing a sharp escalation in terrorist violence. In response, India has deployed a massive security force of more than 500,000 men. In some ways, conditions in the state have improved over the last few years. In 2002, Kashmiris elected a new state government in a contest that was generally regarded as fair, although boycotts by separatist groups kept turnout low. Tourists have since returned to the gardens and houseboats of Srinagar, the fabled summer capital, and militant violence has registered a modest decline. At the same time, Kashmiris say they have been disappointed that the peace process has not yielded other improvements. For example, India has refused requests by moderate separatist leaders to release political prisoners and end offensive combat operations, and a popular proposal to run buses across the cease-fire line that separates Indian and Pakistani forces in Kashmir has stumbled over India's insistence that the bus passengers carry passports. Moreover, complaints against state security forces have increased from 309 in 1999-2000 to more than 700 in the year that ended Aug. 31, according to the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission. 'We tried to tell them that if you address the human rights situation in the [Kashmir] Valley, it will send a message to the people that the government of India is sincere,' said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a senior cleric who leads the main moderate faction of Kashmiri separatists. 'Unfortunately, nothing of that sort happened.' Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil, whose ministry oversees internal security, said in an interview that 'half a dozen big cases don't prove anything' and accused India's critics of overlooking 'the human rights of the people who are fighting to protect the lives of innocent people.' Patil reiterated that any talks on Kashmir would take place 'within the four walls of the constitution,' which describes the region as an integral part of India. But he also said India would talk to Pakistan 'unconditionally' about Kashmir and asserted that 'many things have been said and done' already to address the concerns of its citizens. He added, however, 'I am not expected to give you all the details.' Such claims are viewed with skepticism in Gund Dachina, a bucolic, poplar-shaded village at the edge of terraced rice fields about 30 miles north of Srinagar. Behind the village is a steep forested ridge that is said to be teeming with militants. More visible are the Indian soldiers, several hundred of whom are encamped on the playing fields of a nearby high school. The other day, soldiers in armored vests and heavy steel helmets moved warily through the village on foot, with rifles at the ready. A few miles down the road, locals lined up to display identification cards at one of the army's ubiquitous checkpoints. As a doctor, Mir enjoys considerable status in the village, where he lives with his wife and three children in a spacious brick house with a garden full of flowers and a Maruti car parked in the driveway. A balding, round- faced man with a reddish beard, he was recently promoted to 'block medical officer' of a nearby district, where he supervises 21 government clinics. After being arrested on Aug. 4, Mir said, he was taken to an interrogation center in Srinagar and accused of giving money to a militant group. Mir acknowledged that he might have done so inadvertently; a few weeks before the arrest, he said, a stranger in a suit and tie dropped by his clinic and asked him to hold a bag of cash for one of Mir's patients. Mir said he thought little of the request at the time but later learned that the patient had been arrested for working with the militants. 'They said, 'You must be a middleman,' ' he recalled of his interrogators, whom he identified as members of the Jammu and Kashmir police. The physical abuse started immediately, he said, when a police officer slapped him twice across the face, rupturing one of his eardrums. Then his interrogators made him strip naked and sit on the floor while electrical current from a hand-cranked generator was applied to his genitals and feet, which were splashed with water for better conductivity. At the same time, he said, two officers placed a wooden stave across his legs, bore down with all their weight and rolled it repeatedly back and forth, opening half-dollar-size wounds on his thighs. The torture was repeated on the third day of his imprisonment. 'I was crying, 'I am diabetic. I am going to lose my legs because of this torture,' ' recalled Mir, who takes medication for his condition. 'They said, 'Yes, we want you to lose your legs.' ' The officers also beat him on the back and buttocks with a length of tire, he said, and hung him twice from the ceiling by his arms for 10 or 15 minutes at a stretch. The ordeal finally ended on the fourth day, he said, when guards found him unconscious on the floor of his cell. He was taken to Sri Maharaja Pratap Singh Hospital, where a doctor noted bruises and torture marks on his thighs and back, according to a copy of the examination record. Mir was hospitalized for 12 days. During that time, he said, police dropped the accusations relating to the money transfer and instead charged him with giving a hand grenade to two militants who used it in an attack. The two were arrested and named Mir in their confession, according to a police charge sheet. Mir said he had never heard of the two men, let alone supplied them with a grenade. Javaid Gillani, the senior superintendent of police in Srinagar, said in an interview that he did not know how Mir was injured but denied security forces were involved. Such allegations, he added, are 'generally not true.'

 

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