It said the law has long shielded the armed forces from responsibility for grave human rights abuses and denied justice to the families harmed.
The killing of 14 civilians by the security forces in Nagaland has underscored the need for the Indian Government to immediately repeal the “abusive” Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and prosecute the soldiers responsible, the New York City-headquartered Human Rights Watch (HWR) said on Wednesday .
The Army had issued a statement regretting the killing of the civilians by an elite unit near Nagaland’s Oting village on December 4, which it said was a case of “mistaken identity”. An Assam Rifles unit shot another person after protesters attacked their camp in district headquarters Mon the following day.
The local police subsequently filed a first information report saying the military had not made a requisition to the police station to provide a police guide for their counterinsurgency operation and thus, “it is obvious that the intention of the security forces is to murder and injure civilians”.
“Pledges by India’s Home Minister Amit Shah and the Army to investigate the horrific killing of 14 people will come to nothing unless those responsible are prosecuted. So long as the AFSPA protects soldiers from accountability, such atrocities will continue,” Meenakshi Ganguly, the HRW’s South Asia director, said.
Also read: Nagaland killings underline AFSPA pitfalls
Mr. Shah expressed regret over the incident and said a special investigation team would probe it. But he did not clarify in Parliament whether the Central Government would give permission to prosecute those found responsible, the rights body said.
While Indian law permits prosecuting members of the armed forces accused of crimes under either the military or civilian justice systems, the AFSPA requires the Central Government’s prior approval for civilian prosecutions of military personnel, the HRW pointed out.
Under the Army Act, the military may transfer a soldier from civilian to military custody for offences that could be tried by a court-martial, it said.
But the Central Government routinely denied permission for civilian prosecution of military personnel. In 2018, the Defence Ministry informed Parliament that it had denied all 50 requests from the Jammu and Kashmir Government for civilian prosecution of soldiers since 2001, the HRW said.
The HRW referred to a 2019 report on Jammu and Kashmir by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, saying the AFSPA “remains a key obstacle to accountability”.
The AFSPA, enacted in 1958 as a short-term measure to allow deployment of the Army to counter an armed separatist movement in the Naga Hills, has now been in force for over six decades. In addition to Nagaland, it is currently used in Manipur, Assam, and parts of Arunachal Pradesh in India’s northeast, and in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
The AFSPA gave the armed forces wide powers to shoot to kill, make arrests on flimsy pretexts, conduct warrantless searches, and demolish structures in the name of “aiding civil power”, the HRW said.
“The powers that the law extends to the armed forces come into force once an area subject to the Act has been declared ‘disturbed’ by the Central or the State Government. This declaration is not subject to judicial review,” it said.
“Equipped with these special powers, soldiers have raped, tortured, forcibly disappeared, and killed people without fear of being held accountable… The act also denies the victims and their families the right to a remedy,” the HRW said.
“AFSPA has long shielded the armed forces from responsibility for grave human rights abuses and denied justice to the families harmed. The Government should ensure an independent civilian investigation into the Nagaland killings and urgently repeal AFSPA to save many more lives,” Ms. Ganguly said.