Srinagar: Kashmiri separatists and rights groups on Friday denounced a military court verdict that exonerated five Indian army officers involved in the killing of five civilians 14 years ago.
“It is a living example of lawlessness and state terrorism, a slap in the face of the Kashmiri people whose lives have no value for the Indian army,” separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani said in a statement.
The five local civilians were killed in Pathribal village days after the massacre of 35 Sikhs in a remote village of Chattisinghpora in May 2000.
The army claimed the victims were “foreign militants,” accusing them of being responsible for the massacre.
But a subsequent probe by India’s top investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), described the killings as “cold blooded murder,” paving the way for a trial in a military court held behind closed doors.
The five were however cleared on Thursday as “the evidence recorded could not establish a prime facie case against any of the accused persons,” according to an army statement.
In its verdict, the tribunal did not dispute the CBI's findings that the victims were civilians but it added that they were killed during an operation “based on specific intelligence”.
Scores of activists from the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) staged a protest in the state’s main city Srinagar on Friday to denounce the verdict, chanting slogans such as “Punish the Murderers!”
The London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International said the verdict was an example of the culture of “impunity” in Kashmir, a picturesque Himalayan region, divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both.
“Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the army, after deciding to investigate its own alleged abuses, has given itself a clean chit,” said Amnesty’s Christine Mehta.
Pervez Imroz, a Kashmir-based rights lawyer, said it was “yet another display of absolute impunity the Indian army continues to enjoy”.
Under an emergency military law known as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), soldiers deployed in Indian-administered Kashmir cannot stand trial in civilian courts without express permission of the federal government in New Delhi.
Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of what is India’s only Muslim-majority state, renewed his calls after the verdict for a change in the law which would remove the blanket immunity.
Abdullah said he was “extremely disappointed” by the verdict, especially as “the findings of the CBI (were) so self evident”.
About a dozen rebel groups have been fighting Indian forces since 1989 for Kashmir's independence or for its merger with Pakistan. The fighting has left tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, dead.