NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Indian soldiers are alleged to have abused people's rights in the troubled region of Kashmir more than 1,500 times over the past 20 years, but less than three percent of the allegations were found to be true, a senior army officer has said.
Human rights groups have for years accused security forces battling a separatist insurgency in Kashmir and parts of northeast India of violating civilian rights through the use of a controversial law which gives them sweeping powers to search, arrest or shoot people.
Indian authorities and the army deny the charges, saying the law - the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) - is essential to root out militants. Kashmir, India’s only majority-Muslim region, has been the trigger for two of the three wars between India and neighbouring Pakistan.
On the eve of Human Rights Day on Monday, Lieutenant-General Sanjiv Chachra, head of the northern command, said independent investigations had found that most of the allegations were false.
"Of the 1,524 allegations of human rights violations levelled during the past 20 years, 42 involving 124 army personnel were found true following investigation into each of them by an independent and autonomous body," the Indian Express quoted him as saying.
Those found guilty were given "exemplary" punishments ranging from dismissal from service without any service benefits to imprisonment, he said. He also ordered all troops in the region to ensure "zero human rights violations" during counter-insurgency operations.
But human rights group Amnesty International India questioned Chachra's statement, saying there was little transparency over how the army conducted investigations.
"It is inexplicable why the army is reluctant to share substantive information when it comes to how they conduct inquiries and courts-martial into allegations of human rights violations," said Shashikumar Velath, Amnesty's programmes director.
"The fact that they have in effect deemed 97 percent of the complaints they received as "false" - without disclosing details of the inquiries - seems to reflect a culture of impunity rather than an absence of wrongdoing by the army."
All cases of alleged human rights violations should be tried by a competent, independent and transparent civilian court, Velath said.
Among other powers, the AFSPA allows security forces to fire upon, or use force against, an assembly of five or more people, or anyone in possession of a deadly weapon, and gives legal immunity to soldiers in a civilian court.
Government forces killed more than 100 people during protests against the AFSPA in Kashmir in 2010. Local authorities in some areas have said they will stop using the law, but the Indian army has forbidden this.
In March last year, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, urged New Delhi to scrap the law, saying it was "a symbol of excessive state power" that "clearly violates international law".