NEW DELHI – Ahead of the Indian government’s proposed move to repeal a draconian anti-terror legislation, a new report says the law is used to settle personal vendettas, frame children, torture prisoners and systematically target the minority Muslim community.
Lashing out at the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2002 (POTA), human rights lawyer Nitya Ramakrishna charges, “POTA is a law specifically meant to subvert India’s minority community. Muslims have been targeted everywhere from (the capital) New Delhi to Jammu and Kashmir in the north to the western Indian state of Gujarat.”
In the most glaring discrimination in Gujarat which witnessed mindless violence against Muslims for three months in early 2002 following the burning of a train carrying Hindu activists 280 Muslims and no Hindus were booked under POTA.
Ramakrishna was speaking at the release here Thursday of a 629-page report on atrocities committed under POTA, “The Terror of POTA and Other Security Legislations.”
The report was compiled from the testimonies of scores of victims at a People’s Tribunal on POTA and similar legislation, held in New Delhi on March 13 and 14.
Releasing the report, senior advocate and former federal law minister Ram Jethmalani offered a public apology for supporting the enactment of POTA during the tenure of India’s previous Bharatiya Janata Party led coalition government. POTA is presently enforced in ten states.
India’s newly elected coalition government plans to do away with the controversial law this monsoon session and simultaneously give more teeth to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, by including terrorism and funding of terrorism in its ambit.
Maintains Jethmalani, “Power has been misused under POTA. It must be repealed lock, stock and barrel. The only part that should remain is a clause controlling funding to terrorist groups.”
The country is riddled with numerous instances of the abuse Jethmalani speaks of.
In the eastern state of Jharkhand, POTA has replaced all the laws of the land, charges the report. People involved in land disputes are often booked under trumped up charges, with policemen descending on villages in groups and beating up children and old women, raping wives and taking away the men.
In most cases, those arrested are not even informed of the charges against them. In one instance, 14-year-old Janki Bhuiya was arrested from the state’s Hazaribagh district because the police suspected his father was involved with Maoists. The father had not visited his family for three years, yet the police jailed both mother and son.
Violating norms, they were not allowed an advocate or informed about the charges against them.
Exclaims former member of the National commission for Women Syeda Hameed, “Listening to the victims through the two days, it struck me that with the exception of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, every person who deposed before the Bench was ragged and wretched. The hypothesis therefore is terror is spread only by the poor and marginalized.”
In Tamil Nadu, the head of the state, J. Jayalalitha is accused of using the law to imprison politicians of opposition parties.
Asserts advocate Colin Gonsalves, a member of the report’s organizing committee, “If there is a single aspect of POTA we are most opposed to, it is making a custodial confession valid evidence in court, thereby perpetuating rampant torture in police stations.”
The report details horror stories of custodial torture and deaths, especially in insurgency-torn states where the armed forces excercise special powers and immunity.
In the northeastern state of Manipur, for instance, 23-year-old Khuraijim Pranam Singh says he was hauled off a bus by members of a paramilitary force in July 2000. “They beat me up, gave me electric shocks and hung me upside down over three days. They poked rods up my anus and applied chili powder to my eyes and genitals. I was later taken to a hospital and treated.”
As in many such cases, authorities were unable to provide any evidence against Pranam Singh. He considers himself lucky to have escaped alive.
In conflict torn states in the northeast and Kashmir, the armed forces are often regarded as oppressors and not protectors, accused of abuses like rape and torture.
The report charges, “Most rape by the Indian Army goes unreported due to the fear of social stigma and futility of taking up an embarrassing legal battle against the might of the army.”
Although the government in Kashmir has said POTA will not be used in the state, other “draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Public Safety Act are used unsparingly,” the report charges.
The mascot of the report is Irom Sharmila Devi, who started a hunger fast three years ago in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. She was witness to a platoon shooting down 13 people in a market place.
In judicial custody at a hospital in Imphal, Sharmila is being force-fed through her nose. Several government officials have visited her but refuse to heed her pleas. Says the determined young woman, “I love peace very much but first of all we must have the right to justice.”
Writer Arundhati Roy accuses the media of perpetuating injustice, charging, “If you look at the Parliament attack case [in New Delhi on December 13, 2001], the media reported absolute lies while the trial was on. A partner in this whole process of state terrorism is the corporate media.”
The panel on repealing POTA, including Jethmalani, Roy, Hamed and Giri, has released 17 recommendations to the government. These include strict laws to deter custodial torture and deaths, repealing all provisions in security legislation granting even limited immunity to the armed forces, housing juvenile convicts away from hardened criminals, upholding the right to freedom of speech and expression and providing reparation and compensation to POTA victims.
Asserting that POTA should be repealed retrospectively, report editor Preeti Verma says a key problem with the law is the uncertainty over the number of people charged.
“There are discrepancies between the figures provided by the home ministry, the POTA Central Review Committee and state authorities. We have relied on newspaper reports for several cases. We want the government to tell us exactly how many people have been charged under this law,” she demands.