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Orissa recruiting minors as SPOs: HRW

Dharam Shourie in New York | January 28, 2009 16:04 IST

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A leading international human rights group has alleged that the Orissa government is recruiting children under 18 years of age as Special Police Officers to fight Naxalite insurgents, and asked the state to take measures to stop the practice.

In a letter to Orissa Chief Minister Navin Patnaik, Human Rights Watch asked the state government to develop and put into practice measures to ensure that children are not recruited as SPOs.

"No matter how serious the threat, Orissa should not use children to fight the Naxalites [Images]," Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, said.

"I write to express deep concern regarding the Orissa home department's plan to recruit an estimated 2,000 tribal youths as SPOs to counter Naxal violence in the region. In particular, we are concerned about the use of SPOs for paramilitary purposes, and the possibility that children under the age of 18 may be recruited in violation of the home department's stated age limits," Adams said.

In the letter released on Wednesday, the watchdog said in the adjoining Chhattisgarh state, SPOs, including many children under the age of 18, were deployed in armed operations against Naxalites, without adequate protection and training.

"The Chhattisgarh police claim that it has now removed all children from its ranks, but there are continued allegations that many minors continue to participate in armed operations," Adams said.

Noting that India's Police Act empowers local magistrates to temporarily appoint civilians as SPOs to perform the roles of ordinary officers of police, he said, "Such appointments are meant as a stop-gap measure."

"However, the language of the statute does not envision the deployment of SPOs in roles comparable to those played by paramilitary police such as the Central Reserve Police Force and the Indian Reserve Battalions," Adams added.

Orissa home department officials, Adams said, have been quoted by the press as saying that SPOs in Orissa will be doing the same things that the SPOs in Chhattisgarh are doing.

"An investigation conducted by HRW in Chhattisgarh in 2007 and 2008 found that SPOs were routinely deployed alongside paramilitary police on anti-Naxalite combing operations," he said.

SPOs, Adam said, received training that was far inferior to that given to civil police. Many SPOs in Chhattisgarh have been killed or injured in armed exchanges with the Naxalites.

"We also found that SPOs were often targeted for Naxalite reprisals," he added.

While the Orissa government has an obligation to provide security to the population, he said, measures to maintain law and order must be in accordance with both national and international law.

"Indian human rights lawyers contend that the Indian Police Act does not envisage en masse recruitment of SPOs, and that the deployment of SPOs against Naxalites is a blatant abuse of the Act," the letter said.

Such practices place children at grave risk, and violate India's obligations under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which sets 18 as the minimum age. India became a party to the Optional Protocol in 2005, it said.

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