As the families the Machil fake encounter victims welcomed the confirmation of life sentence to six Army personnel for luring three civilians to the Line of Control (LoC) and killing them, the mood is Pathribal stood in stark contrast.
“This (Machil verdict) is just for show,” said Abdul Rashid Khan, whose father, 38-year-old Juma Khan, was one of the five men killed in an alleged fake encounter in Pathribal and buried after being dubbed a “foreign militant” by the Army.
“For us, it cannot get sadder than this. It is like rubbing salt on our wounds,” Rashid said.
On March 24, 2000, five civilians from south Kashmir, including a 50-year-old man, were killed by the Army in an alleged fake encounter in Pathribal.
The Army dubbed the victims foreign militants belonging to the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and said they were responsible for the killing of 35 Sikhs in Chattisinghpora. The Army made this announcement before the then Union home minister L K Advani, who was on a visit to the Sikh village.
However, subsequently allegations emerged that the men were civilians picked up from different parts of south Kashmir and killed in a fake encounter, following which their bodies were charred beyond recognition.
In January 2014, the Army gave itself a clean chit in the Pathribal encounter case and decided not to court martial its seven top officers, saying there was no evidence to proceed against them.
Following widespread protests, the Jammu and Kashmir government ordered the exhumation of bodies and DNA tests to ascertain the identity of the men killed by the Army. Investigations confirmed that the men were civilians who had gone missing from south Kashmir.
The case was handed over to the CBI, which charged five Army officers — Ajay Saxena, Brijendra Pratap Singh, Sourabh Sharma, Amit Saxena and Idress Khan, all belonging to the 7 Rashtriya Rifles — with abduction, murder, criminal conspiracy and destruction of evidence.
While the CBI filed a chargesheet against the Army officers before the Chief Judicial Magistrate in Srinagar, the Army objected on the grounds that prior sanction under AFSPA is needed for prosecuting Army officials. The objection, however, was turned down by the court.
After failing to get reprieve from the local court and the J&K High Court, the Army moved the Supreme Court which, in 2012, gave the Army full discretion to choose between a court martial and a criminal trial for accused officers. The Army chose court martial, but later exonerated all five officers for want of evidence.
The victims, however, said they were denied justice because the accused officers had reached top positions in the Army by the time the court martial started.
“There was clear evidence that they (the Army officers) killed civilians. We identified the bodies and the DNA tests confirmed it,” claimed Shakoor Ahmad Khan, whose father Juam Khan (50) was the oldest victim. “The Army acquitted its men because they were high-ranking officers, like Brigadiers, by that time. In the Machil case, they sentenced them because they were low-ranking officers,” he added.
The families said they will continue to press for justice.
“As long as we are alive, we will raise our voice against this injustice,” said Rashid. “When the Army verdict came, we had appealed to the government to reopen the case. We haven’t heard from them yet. But if they don’t reopen it, we will approach the court ourselves,” he added.