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Onus now on CBI

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  16 July 2017 12:00 AM GMT

After the Supreme Court’s landmark order for a CBI probe by a special investigating team (SIT) into over 90 fake encounter killings in Manipur in the last decade, the onus is now on the CBI to conduct a proper investigation. It will not be an easy task, with some of the evidence in old cases irretrievably lost by now. The apex court has of course pointed out that the ground work has already been done by commissions of inquiry, a judicial inquiry, the Gauhati and Manipur High Courts and the NHRC — so it is up to the SIT to utilise the material gathered. Back in January 2013, the Supreme Court had appointed a high-power commission headed by retired SC judge Santosh Hegde with former Chief Election Commissioner JM Lyngdoh and former Kartaka DGP Ajay Kumar Singh as members. Probing six cases that looked like extra-judicial killings, the commission in its report had minced no words when it noted these “egregious examples of AFSPA’s gross abuse” in the state. Intelligence inputs on which the security forces had acted were found unreliable, there were no records of the victims having prior links with crimils or militants, and the weapons seized appeared to have been planted on their bodies — so much so — that Justice Hegde had dubbed all six encounter deaths “out and out murder” before the media. Before handing out Friday’s verdict, the apex court noted that in none of the 98 cases to be probed had an FIR been registered against Manipur police or any security personnel of the armed forces; instead, FIRs have been registered against the deceased for alleged violations. “Under these circumstances, it would be ippropriate 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,” observed the SC bench. It therefore remains to be seen how cooperative the Central and Manipur governments will be to the SIT probe in the coming months.
The Supreme Court’s verdict has come on a PIL filed in 2012 by the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM), seeking a SIT probe into the killing of 1,528 persons by Manipur Police and security forces since 1978. However, this platform has been able to collect information of 265 of these killings, while the government has rejected such numbers outright. What was in focus was AFSPA, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958, which grants members of armed forces special powers to conduct searches and seizures, arrest suspects without warrants, fire upon or use other kinds of force ‘after due warning’ even if it causes death — and thereafter immunity from prosecution. In July last year, the apex court had held that use of “excessive force or retaliatory force” by the Manipur police or the armed forces of the Union is not permissible. “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 the ‘enemy’, not only the rule of law but our democracy would be in grave danger,” the SC bench had observed. During the hearings in April this year, the Centre had told the apex court that the armed forces cannot be subjected to crimil prosecution for carrying out anti-insurgency operations in disturbed areas, that it is wrong for every judicial inquiry to disbelieve the Army, and that no purpose will be served by reopening investigations in Manipur where ‘most of the cases were very old and the victims’ families have been compensated’. This argument failed to convince the SC bench which retorted that ‘merely because the state has not taken any action and has allowed time to go by, it cannot take advantage of the delay to scuttle an inquiry’, and that compensation cannot override the law of the land because then ‘all heinous crimes would get settled through payment of monetary compensation’. The Centre has argued that the armed forces cannot be sent with hands tied in do-or-die situations against militants. But unthinking use of ‘free hands’ under AFSPA have resulted in horrendous incidents like the November 2000 massacre at Malom in Manipur, where an IED blast set off near an Assam Rifles convoy caused enraged troopers to gun down 10 persons waiting at a bus stop nearby. That was the outrage which set off Irom Sharmila on her 16-year fast. Clearly, there has to be a major rethink over AFSPA despite all major political parties being on the same page over it. It remains to be seen how far the SIT probe succeeds in unearthing clinching evidence of use of excessive force in the 98 encounter deaths, for that will once again bring under scanner the ‘license to kill’ that is AFSPA.

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