In a first, the Supreme Court on Friday set up a special investigating team of five Central Bureau of Investigation officers and ordered the registration of an FIR and probe into the extra-judicial killings, fake encounters by the Army, Assam Rifles and police in insurgency-hit Manipur.
The apex court directed the CBI director to nominate a team of five officers for the SIT within two weeks, who will lodge the necessary FIRs and complete the investigation into the fake encounters by December 31 this year.
Calling upon states to adhere to the National Human Rights Commission guidelines, the bench said "It is not as if the dignity of only living persons needs to be respected, even the dignity of the dead must be given due respect".
"Having considered the issues in their entirety, we are of opinion that it would be appropriate if the Central Bureau of Investigation is required to look into these fake encounters or use of excessive or retaliatory force," a bench of Justices M B Lokur and U U Lalit said.
Directing the Centre and Manipur to extend full cooperation and assistance to the SIT without any "unnecessary hindrances or obstacles", the apex court asked the CBI chief to inform it about the composition of SIT in two weeks.
The court, which is hearing a PIL seeking probe into 1528 extra-judicial killings, ordered registration of FIR in 81 cases including 32 cases probed by a Commission of Enquiry, 32 cases investigated by judicial enquiries and high courts, 11 cases in which compensation has been awarded by NHRC and six cases probed by the commission headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice Santosh Hegde.
On July 8 last year, the apex court had said the situation in Manipur has "never been one of war" and killing of citizens on suspicion that they are the "enemy", gravely endangers democracy.
It had held that the use of "excessive force" by the armed forces or police was not permissible in 'disturbed areas' under the draconian AFSPA.
The apex court, which had directed a thorough probe into the alleged fake encounter killings, maintained that inquest was needed to "know the truth" in Manipur where "we need to be clear that the situation has never been one of a war or an external aggression or an armed rebellion that threatens the security of the country or a part thereof."
It had also said "if members of our armed forces are deployed and employed to kill citizens of our country on the mere allegation or suspicion that they are 'enemy', not only the rule of law but our democracy would be in grave danger."
The bench said that in none of the cases, FIR has been registered against the Manipur Police or any personnel of the central armed forces, while on the contrary, FIRs have been registered against the deceased for alleged violations of the law.
"Under these circumstances, it would be inappropriate for us to depend upon the Manipur Police to carry out an impartial investigation, more particularly when some of its own personnel are said to be involved in the fake encounters and the Manipur Police has not registered any FIR at the instance of the next of the kin of the deceased," it said.
The apex court did not agree with the contention of then Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, who had appeared for the armed forces, that compensation has been paid to the next of kin for the unfortunate deaths and therefore it may be not necessary to proceed further in the matter.
"We cannot agree. Compensation has been awarded to the next of kin for the agony they have suffered and to enable them to immediately tide over their loss and for their rehabilitation," it said, adding that the step cannot override the law of the land, otherwise all heinous crimes would get settled through payment of monetary compensation.
Rejecting the charge of bias in judicial enquiries due to local pressure and the ground level situation, the bench said if there had been a break-down of the rule of law in Manipur, then Centre was under an obligation to take appropriate steps.
"To suggest that all the inquiries were unfair and motivated is casting very serious aspersions on the independence of the authorities in Manipur at that point of time, which we do not think is at all warranted," the top court said.
It said if a crime has been committed, a crime which involves the death of a person who is possibly innocent, it cannot be overlooked only because of lapse of time.
Referring to an earlier judgement, it said a Constitution Bench has held that allegation of use of excessive force by the personnel resulting in the death of any person, necessitated a thorough probe into the incident.
The bench directed the listing of petitions in the second week of January next year to ensure compliance with the directions for probe by the CBI.
The court said that difficulties highlighted by NHRC clearly indicate that it has been unfortunately reduced to a "toothless tiger" and directed the Centre to "expeditiously and favourably" consider the requests of the commission as it would be difficult for it to work effectively.
It said though every state has to constitute State Human Rights Commission as per constitutional provisions but some have not done so.
"We do feel it imperative to bring it to the notice of all State Governments that it would be but a small step in the protection of life and liberty of every person in our country if a State Human Rights Commission is constituted at the earliest," it said, adding that if the people are deprived of human rights or cannot have them enforced, "democracy itself would be in peril".
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