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Victims of Punjab counter-insurgency still search for justice
Vicky Nanjappa in New Delhi
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October 19, 2007 14:20 IST

"I used to receive threatening phone calls. The caller would say that they had killed thousands of boys and had thrown them into canals, and they would also do that to Kulwinder Singh's wife, kid, or me and my wife," says Tarlochan Singh.

Tarlochan lost his son Kulwinder, allegedly in a fake encounter during the counter-insurgency campaign in Punjab by the security forces around 18 years ago.

Eighteen years have passed and Tarlochan still does the rounds of the court seeking justice for his son, who he says was a victim of madness.

"The trial has been proceeding with very little evidence being recorded at each hearing, and with two to three months between hearings. During this time, key witnesses have died," Tarlochan says.

This is just one of the many cases recorded in the new report of the Human Rights Watch and Ensaaf. The 123 -page report, 'Protecting the Killers: A Policy of Impunity in Punjab, India' examines the challenges faced by victims and their relatives in pursuing legal avenues for accountability for the human rights abuses perpetrated during the government's
counter-insurgency campaign.

The report describes the impunity enjoyed by officials responsible for violations and the near total failure of India's judicial and state institutions, from the National Human Rights Commission to the Central Bureau of Investigation, to provide justice for victims' families.

The case of Mohinder Singh whose son, Jugraj Singh was killed in a fake encounter in 1995 is no different from that of Tarlochan's.

The heartbroken father says that he tried various avenues trying to seek justice.

"A CBI inquiry also found that my son had been killed and cremated by the police. I have walked the courts for over 10 years, but I still have not got justice. On one occasion, a CBI officer came to my house and told me that I wasn't going to get anything out of this. Not justice and not even compensation.

He further said: 'I see you running around pursuing your case. But you shouldn't get into a confrontation with the police. You have to live here and they can pick you up at any time.' He was indirectly threatening me," Mohinder says.

Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch told that over 15 years have passed but there are so many awaiting justice. The stories narrated by the mothers and fathers of the victims are heart-rendering.

"We are doing everything to ensure that justice is done to these families. We have also made several recommendations to the government through this report which I feel, if implemented could end the trauma of many. The government must consider this problem seriously and not give scope for more troubles. It has been proved that abuse only leads to more abuse," Meenakshi says.

Take the case of Jaswant Singh Khalra, a leading human rights defender in Punjab, who was abducted and then murdered in October 1995 by government officials after being held in illegal detention for almost two months.

Despite credible eyewitness testimony that police chief K P S Gill was directly involved in interrogating Khalra in illegal detention just days prior to Khalra's murder, the CBI has thus far refused to investigate or prosecute Gill.

In September 2006, Khalra's widow Paramjit Kaur filed a petition in the Punjab & Haryana high court calling on the CBI to take action against Gill.

More than a year later, she is still waiting for a hearing.

Another key case that has been discussed in this report is the mass cremations case in which security services are implicated in thousands of killings and secret cremations throughout Punjab to hide evidence of wrongdoing.

The case is currently before the National Human Rights Commission, which has been specially empowered by the Supreme Court to address this case.

However, the commission has narrowed its efforts to merely establishing the identity of the individuals who were secretly cremated in three crematoria in just one district of Punjab.

What they seek?

The report suggests a comprehensive framework to address the institutionalised impunity that has prevented accountability in Punjab.

The detailed recommendations include establishing a commission of inquiry, a special prosecutor's office, and an extensive reparations programme.

In order to end the institutional defects that foster impunity in Punjab and elsewhere in the country, the government should take new legal and practical steps, including the establishment of a commission of inquiry, a special prosecutor's office, and an extensive reparations program.

Backdrop: Beginning in the 1980s, Sikh separatists in Punjab committed serious human rights abuses, including the massacre of civilians, attacks upon Hindu minorities in the state, and indiscriminate bomb attacks in crowded places.

In its counterinsurgency operations in Punjab from 1984 to 1995, Indian security forces committed serious human rights abuses against tens of thousands of Sikhs.

None of the key architects of this counterinsurgency strategy, who bear substantial responsibility for these atrocities, have been brought to justice.

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