Families of ‘fake encounter’ victims hope for justice

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By Yambem Laba
On 4 January the Supreme Court ordered the setting up of a commission to be headed by Justice (retd) Santosh Hedge of the Supreme Court and compromising JM Lyngdoh, the no-nonsense former Chief Election Commissioner, and AK Singh, former Karnataka police chief, as members, to investigate the circumstances under which six persons, including 12-year-old student Azad Khan, were summarily executed by state forces, notably the infamous and dreaded Manipur police commandos and personnel of the Assam Rifles, which operate alone and sometimes in tandem as a joint force in the name of counter-insurgency.

The six, however, comprise just the tip of the iceberg, for named in a writ petition, praying for a special investigation team to probe into the killings in fake encounters, are not only one or two, as in the Gujarat case, but a total of 1,528 who were allegedly slain extra-judiciously from May 1979 to May 2012.

Work towards this historic move began about two years ago when various human rights and civil liberty activists got together and formed the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights in Manipur and the UN. The members gathered  information and documents relating to the killings in an extra-judicial manner by the police, the Army and para-military forces, including the Assam Rifles, the CRPF and the BSF. Most of the victims were in their 20s and 30s.

The report was ready by mid-March. Two busloads of  victims’ families,  armed with photographs of their slain sons or brothers, went to Guwahati to meet Christof Heyns, the UN’s special rapporteur on extra-judicial summary or arbitary executions. Also present at that historic meeting on 29 March 2012 were Justice WA Shishak, former chairperson of the Manipur Human Rights Commission, C Upendra, retired district and sessions judge of Manipur (he had headed many an inquiry commission to probe such deaths), Laifungbam Debabrata “Bobby” Roy, convenor of the coalition, Babloo Loitongbam of the Human Rights Alert and one of the petitioners in the present case before the Supreme Court, Meihoubam Rakesh of the Human Rights Law Network and myself in my capacity as a former member of the State Human Rights Commission.

Heyns got a first-hand impression of the trauma the surviving relatives of the victims had to go through, hoping against hope for justice which never seemed to come. A memorandum, giving details of the 1,528 persons, was presented to him. Within two days of receiving it, he said in New Delhi that “the impunity for  extra-judicial executions is the central problem. This gives perpetrators a free rein and leaves victims in a situation where they are either left helpless or have to retaliate. And it is this impunity which the Supreme Court now aims to remove to some extent, if not to eradicate fully”.

On 1 October 2012, a division bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justice Aftab Alam and Justice Ranjana Desai, admitted a writ petition filed by the Extra-judicial Execution Victims’ Families’ Association, Manipur and the Human Rights Alert, Manipur, praying  for a special investigation team to probe the deaths in fake encounters. The court also appointed Menaka Gurusamy the amicus curiae of the case.

According to Neena Ningombam, secretary of the EEVFAM, her journey began on 4 November 2008 when after lunch her husband Michael left home to assist a friend with some chores. Then she got a call from him informing her that he had been apprehended by police commandos and that she should initiate steps to secure his release. When she called back there was no answer, The 9 pm news bulletin of the local cable TV network showed the slain body of her husband with a grenade in hand and the verdict was that he was killed in an encounter. When she did not get any response to her petitions to the chief minister and the director-general of police, she approached Gauhati High Court and the subsequent probe revealed that Michael was shot dead by police commandos, and not in an exchange of fire in an encounter.

Shunned by the public as young widows and denied all facilities by the state for being families of supposed “terrorists”, the EEVFAM first started as a support group, meeting every second Saturday to keep each other informed about developments in their cases. It had also included the father of 12-year-old Azad Khan. “Azad was a Class VII student when personnel of the 23 Assam Rifles and state police commandos swooped down on his village at Phabakchao Mayai Leikai, dragged him for some 30 metres and shot him dead, branding him an insurgent.” How can a 12-year-old be a terrorist, thundered the Supreme Court, and asked the state government if its contention that “they are killing us so that we are killing them means that we are in a state of war. Do it quickly, the people are dying there” were the directives to the state government which had failed to submit its counter-affidavit in time.

Welcoming the Supreme Court’s move in establishing the high-powered commission, Amnesty International has urged the Manipur government to cooperate in the probe.

(The writer is The Statesman’s Imphal-based Special Correspondent. Source: The Statesman)

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