Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – On Tuesday, Indian forces killed three young Kashmiri men claiming they were supporters of armed groups and likely planning an attack, but their families saying they were innocent and were murdered in another case of a staged gunfight.
The families of the three victims – Zubair Ahmad Lone, 25, Ather Mushtaq Wani,16, and Aijaz Maqbool Ganai, 22 – from Shopian and Pulwama districts, on Wednesday protested in front of the Srinagar police headquarters, demanding justice for their sons’ murder.
They say the men left home a few hours before a “gunfight” began in Srinagar, the main city in the Muslim-majority region, and accused the Indian army of abducting their children and killing them in a “fake encounter” – a term used in India to describe an extrajudicial killing.
“This is clearly a fake encounter,” said Irfan Ahmad Lone, the brother of one of the victims, Zubair Ahmad Lone, who worked as a mason in the Shopian district after leaving school.
Irfan claims his brother had lunch at home on Tuesday afternoon hours before the gunfight began in Srinagar, about 65km away, which takes about an hour by car.
“I want to ask the army, how did my brother become a militant within hours? Where did he get weapons and join militancy? Where did he get himself trained in hours?” Irfan, who, along with another brother, serves in the police department, told Al Jazeera.
“We want the world to talk about it because they will kill more people in fake encounters in the future.”
#ReturnTheBodies – a heartbreaking hashtag destined to trend only in Kashmir.
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The latest alleged extrajudicial killings come a week after Indian police accused an army officer of killing three labourers in a staged gun battle in July. The officer and his two accomplices were also accused of planting weapons on the bodies of the victims to make it look as if they were armed fighters.
A top officer of the Army, Major General HS Sahi, claimed the three rebels had plans to carry out a “big strike”, and that they had turned down repeated surrender offers during the encounter. Police said one rebel was killed in the early hours of Wednesday and two others were shot dead a few hours later.
The bodies were buried about 120km away from their homes in Sonmarg, their families said.
More than 100 Kashmir rebels have been buried far from their homes in secret graves as part of government policy to deny funerals which attract large crowds. Since India stripped the Muslim-majority region’s limited autonomy in August 2019, nearly 200 rebels have been killed in such encounters, according to official data.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed since an armed rebellion against Indian rule erupted in 1989. India has accused Pakistan of backing armed rebels but Islamabad, which also claims the Himalayan region, denies the charges.
The families of the other two victims – Ather Mushtaq Wani and Aijaz Ahmad Ganai – said they were students and had been living with their parents.
Wani, a class XI student, was scheduled to appear for his exam on Thursday, his family said. Ganai, a college student, and Wani were friends.
Ganai’s family has requested the region’s governor, who directly works under India’s home ministry, to return their son’s body for last rites.
Politicians in Kashmir have called for an investigation into the killings, with former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti calling them “a grave violation” of human rights. In a letter to the governor, she has demanded “an impartial investigation into the matter immediately”.
After public outrage, a police statement said they are investigating the cases and after the thorough investigation “will come to the conclusion on merits”.
But rights activists say recurring violations of human rights in Kashmir are due to the impunity granted to Indian soldiers under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a counterterrorism law with sweeping provisions. They also point out that rewards and cash incentives given to soldiers for the capture and killing of rebels also contribute to extrajudicial killings.
Under the AFSPA, regional authorities have to seek permission from the central government before initiating cases against armed personnel since the whole region of Jammu and Kashmir comes under Disturbed Areas Act.
According to official figures, from 2001 to 2016, the regional government sought permission of the central government to prosecute army personnel in 50 cases. But New Delhi denied permission in 47 cases, claiming lack of evidence. The results for the three cases are pending. No such figures are available for the cases before 2001.
Guftar Ahmed Chowdhary, a rights activist from Rajouri, told Al Jazeera that justice for the victims was “almost impossible” under the AFSPA.
“If the central government gives permission only then army officers can be tried in a civilian court. I don’t think there is hope for justice as long as cases are tried in military courts,” Chowdhary said.
Activists also point to the lack of justice in previous cases of alleged extrajudicial killings. In an encounter at Pathribal on March 25, 2000, the army had claimed that it killed five foreign fighters but an investigation later found that the victims were civilians killed in a staged gunfight.
Five army officers were found to be responsible for the crime, but the military court acquitted them on a lack of evidence.
Similarly, an army court in 2014 found a colonel, a captain and three other security personnel guilty of killing three civilians in the 2010 Machil fake encounter case. They were sentenced to life, but in 2017, the sentence was suspended by the Armed Forces Tribunal.
Rights groups say extrajudicial killings have been taking place in Kashmir for the last two decades with zero prosecutions.
“Over the last three decades, JKCCS has documented thousands of cases of enforced disappearances, extra judicial killings and torture in Kashmir, including cases of civilians killed fake encounters and passes off as militants,” Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a local rights group said in its statements in July after the Shopian fake encounter.
The group added that despite public pressure and probes ordered into the killings, justice was not served to the victims.
Ghulam Nabi Shaheen, a senior human rights lawyer based in the region, told Al Jazeera that army personnel should be tried in civil courts.
“In the Shopian case, three labourers were declared militants. We do hope for justice but then the question is who will do the justice? They will court-martial the army men and the whole thing will be done by the army. The process is not transparent,” he said.
“There is little hope for justice in these cases, if they are tried in civil courts we might have hope – otherwise they become mock trials.”