The police chargesheet in a civilian court against an army captain of 62 Rashtriya Rifles and two civilians in the fake encounter case in Shopian in July this year has given a disturbing account of the killing of three innocent men allegedly by the officer and his accomplices and the elaborate conspiracy hatched to show the victims as terrorists. The three men, who belonged to the same family in a village in Rajouri district of Jammu division, the youngest just 16 years old, had trekked to Kashmir over the mountains to look for work. They were picked up from their room in Chowgam, Shopian, and taken to Amshipora village, where they were allegedly shot in cold blood. The motive appears to have been greed — to claim a Rs 20 lakh reward given by the security forces for information leading to the capture or killing of terrorists. As part of the plan, weapons were planted on the victims, police and CRPF reinforcements were called in, which threw a real cordon around the encounter site. The incident, and its distressing details, call for sober introspection about the reasons for the sense of impunity of an officer allegedly gone rogue. In a place like Kashmir, the soldier’s job poses a difficult challenge every day, but that impunity comes, in large part, from the protection granted under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which the army has invoked repeatedly to protect its own in cases such as this one.
In this case, commendably, the army has acted promptly after prima facie evidence of wrongdoing emerged. The army followed up the preliminary probe with a formal court of inquiry, followed by summary of evidence proceedings, all of which are understood to pave the way to a court martial. The military’s findings so far have been reported to be the same as those contained in the police chargesheet. In the past, the army has been at this point, but mostly, it has been unable to take the tough call required to go further — the 2018 court martial in which three officers, including a major and two colonels, and four soldiers, were sentenced to life imprisonment for a fake encounter of Assam student leaders in February 1994, was a rare instance. The army has refused consent for prosecution in cases of fake encounters, custodial killing and rape — Pathribal 2000, Ganderbal 2007, and Machil 2010. Where it has conducted its own court martial, sentenced soldiers have been able to get the verdict overturned by civilian courts.
The Amshipora fake encounter case is the first time that the army has acknowledged at the preliminary stage that “powers vested under the AFSPA 1990 were exceeded” and that the “dos and don’ts of the Chief of the Army Staff [COAS] as approved by the Supreme Court have been contravened”. This is a welcome sign. The army must now go further and ensure that justice is done, and seen to be done.
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