In Remote Corners of India, Immunity for Soldiers Who Kill and Rape Civilians


Original post: The New York Times

MAYAI LEIKAI, India — A dozen soldiers burst through the front and back doors of a small home here in the middle of a July night, dragged Thangjam Manorama into a room and began to torture her. Her older brother tried to stop them and was badly beaten. Her mother rose to defend her and was knocked unconscious.

After about an hour, Ms. Thangjam was taken out of the house. The next morning, the family found her bullet-ridden body by the side of the road three miles away. Soldiers later claimed that Ms. Thangjam was an insurgent who was shot while she was trying to escape. A medical examiner determined that she had been shot from close range while lying down, that stains on her dress were semen but that multiple gunshots to her vagina made any determination of rape impossible. There was little doubt who was responsible: the soldiers made little effort to hide their faces.

Ms. Thangjam’s death led to months of local protests, including one in which a dozen women stripped naked in front of the local military headquarters carrying a red-lettered banner, “Indian Army Rape Us.” The circumstances of her death were so outrageous that even the prime minister at the time, Manmohan Singh, promised redress.

But a decade later, no one has been arrested or charged with a crime. Activists, lawyers and ordinary people here say they know exactly why: a colonial-era law in effect in India’s periphery that gives blanket immunity from prosecution in civilian courts to Indian soldiers for all crimes, including rape.

Human rights advocates have for years called for the repeal of the law, known as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Christof Heyns, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, wrote last year in a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council that the powers granted under the law “are in reality broader than that allowable under a state of emergency as the right to life may effectively be suspended.”

Yet it endures. As the world’s largest democracy and home of Mohandas K. Gandhi, a pioneer of nonviolent resistance, India has long been counted among the world’s most progressive nations, with robust anti-poverty programs and efforts to provide special benefits to marginalized communities. The country now has 168 state and federal rights organizations, including the National Human Rights Commission.

But a darker reality has always lurked beneath this progressive image, particularly in India’s hard to reach places. In Kashmir, there are thousands of unmarked graves in secret cemeteries created by the army and the police to hide their crimes. Even when civilian officials confirm that innocents were slaughtered, nothing is done.

“We have all these great human rights institutions, but still nobody in India gets justice when the state murders one of their family members,” said Henri Tiphagne, chairman of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development based in Bangkok. “That’s true all over the country, not just in Kashmir.”

Government commissions have repeatedly recommended that the law be repealed, but India’s military has stymied all such efforts.

“If we don’t have this constitutional protection, would you like us to be dragged to court for small allegations?” Gen. J. J. Singh, the chief of army staff, said in a 2005 news conference.

The law is in place in large parts of India’s northeast, a protrusion of land sometimes no more than 14 miles wide that loops around the top and eastern side of Bangladesh and nestles in green mountains along the border with Myanmar. The region’s vast array of languages, cultures and animosities have fueled decades of bloody insurgencies in a beautiful landscape.

Perhaps because of the limited attention given this remote part of the world, soldiers and police officers do not even bother to hide the evidence when they murder and rape innocents, said Babloo Loitongbam, founder of Human Rights Alert in Imphal.

“The political leadership and judiciary here have created an ecosystem where state-sponsored killing is routine, and they do it with complete callousness,” Mr. Loitongbam said. “They don’t plan it; they don’t hide it; they just kill people.”

An investigation last year by a panel appointed by India’s Supreme Court into six representative cases from Manipur State found official explanations of killings so entirely at odds with common sense and available evidence that it concluded that the victims, including a 12-year-old boy killed in view of his parents, had all been murdered. Still, no one has been arrested. One of the suspect officers was given India’s highest peacetime honor for bravery.

In 2009, an Indian magazine published a series of photos showing the police question an unarmed man, pull him into a pharmacy and then moments later drag out his dead body — all in front of dozens of witnesses. Nine officers were eventually charged in the case but none has been convicted.

“Killing is infectious, and the atmosphere here is that anyone in uniform thinks they can do it,” said Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of the Imphal Free Press. “In fact, the murderers are usually rewarded.”

Calls to the Manipur chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh, were not returned. Mr. Singh has been in office since 2002. Voting fraud is so blatant in the state that precinct turnouts sometimes exceed 100 percent and journalists have witnessed vote-stealing.

An attempt to interview the Manipur home minister, Gaikhangam Gangmei, charged with overseeing the police, at an evening Lions Club meeting in Imphal was rebuffed by an aide. Manipur’s top police officer, Director General of Police Shahid Ahmad, would not see a reporter who sat outside his office for nearly two hours.

Efforts by victims’ groups as well as the Supreme Court investigation have had an effect, Mr. Loitongbam of Human Rights Alert said. The police and soldiers once killed hundreds each year; this year has seen only a handful of killings. Widows of those killed formed the Extrajudicial Execution Victim Families’ Association Manipur to help women try to get justice. The association has documented 1,528 police killings between 1979 and 2012, a fraction of the killings that occurred in Kashmir during the period but enough to affect most communities in a state of 2.7 million people.

Thangjam Bashu, one of Ms. Thangjam’s brothers, said that he has little hope that his sister’s killers will ever face justice.

“Those people were beasts only looking for their immediate carnal pleasures,” he said. The law that gave them legal impunity must be repealed, he said, “otherwise my sister’s fate will be the same fate of many more sisters.”

Defense Minister Arun Jaitley said on June 15 that the immunity law would remain in place until peace was secure.