The family of three missing Kashmiris have alleged the trio was killed in a staged operation by the Indian army, bringing back memories of past cases of extrajudicial killings in the Muslim-majority region.
The Kashmiri family said they had identified the three from photos posted on social media after the July 18 operation in southern Shopian district.
“They had not even a remote connection with militancy,” Mohammed Yousuf, the father of one the men, told Associated Press on Tuesday.
He said his son last spoke to his wife on July 17 and from the next day the mobile phones of all three cousins were switched off.
Yousuf called for “a probe, verification of their call records and background checks” to prove their innocence.
The Indian army initially said the victims were “Pakistani terrorists”. More than 100 Kashmiri rebels have been killed in a military offensive launched in January.
Naseeb Khatana said his three cousins – Abrar Khatana, 18, Imtiyaz Ahmed, 21 and Abrar Ahmad, 25 – left their home in the southern district of Rajouri on July 16 to look for work in the Kashmir Valley, but the family lost contact with them a day later.
“Today we identified their bodies from photographs that appeared in social media,” Naseeb Khatana told AFP from his home.
“We want justice and their bodies returned to us,” Khatana said. The family also demanded DNA testing.
Indian-administered Kashmir has largely been under a security lockdown since India’s Hindu nationalist government revoked the region’s limited autonomy in August 2019. Thousands of the region’s politicians, lawyers and activists were thrown into jail – some of whom have since been released – and communication, including internet access, was cut in order to prevent protests against the move that has caused anger in the region.
The Indian army said on Monday it is investigating the deaths of the suspected rebels, after the family filed a missing persons report on Sunday, saying the victims were migrant workers and not rebels.
Army spokesman Colonel Rajesh Kalia said in a brief statement “the army is investigating the matter”.
“The three terrorists killed during the encounter have not been identified and were buried based on established protocols,” the statement added.
The Indian army said on July 18 soldiers killed three suspected “Pakistani terrorists” during a counterinsurgency operation in the south Kashmir village of Amshipora. The bodies, it said, had been buried in a remote border area.
Following the killings in July, Brigadier Ajay Kotach said the military operation was launched after receiving information about the presence of rebels.
“We were also getting inputs of presence of certain identified Pakistani terrorists in that area,” Kotach told a news conference.
Police, who would normally have a presence at such operations, said they did not take part in this one and had launched their own inquiry, a senior police official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The incident has generated social media outrage with calls for an independent investigation into the deaths that have brought the memories of extrajudicial killings locally known as fake encounters back in Kashmir.
In 2010, three army officers were found guilty of killing three labourers who had been branded as Pakistani infiltrators. The killings sparked months of protests that left more than 100 civilians dead.
In 2000, the army claimed to have killed five “terrorists” responsible for the killing of 35 Sikhs. An investigation found the five were locals killed by soldiers in a staged gun battle.
India has stationed more than half a million soldiers in Indian-administered Kashmir to quell an armed rebellion that erupted in 1989. Most Kashmiris want independence from India or a merger with neighbouring Pakistan, whose claims to the picturesque Himalayan region dates back to 1947.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed, mainly civilians, in the military operation. In 2019, the United Nations accused India of human rights violations in Kashmir and called for the formation of a commission of inquiry into the allegations.