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Open Letter to the Chief Minister of Punjab on International Human Rights Day

December 10, 2005

Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh
Government of Punjab, India
Koti No. 45, Sector 2
Chandigarh, India
cm@punjabmail.gov.in

Dear Chief Minister Amarinder Singh:

As the world commemorates International Human Rights Day, we encourage the Punjab government to take meaningful and immediate steps towards enforcing, protecting, and promoting human rights in Punjab. We hope you will use this day as an opportunity to start initiatives to end impunity for mass crimes in Punjab, and begin to demonstrate a commitment to human rights.

National security cannot be used as an excuse to justify violations of the fundamental human rights guaranteed by India’s Constitution and international law, nor to shield perpetrators of these abuses from accountability.

From 1984 to 1995, Indian security forces tortured, disappeared, killed, and illegally cremated over 25,000 Sikhs in counter-insurgency operations. This decade-long police crackdown also included the use of draconian legislation, such as the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act of 1987, and the suppression of freedoms of speech and association. Human Rights Watch described the government counter-insurgency effort as “the most extreme example of a policy in which the end appeared to justify any and all means, including torture and murder.”

In 1995, human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra demonstrated through government records that Punjab police had secretly cremated many of its disappearance victims. The Punjab police subsequently tortured and killed Mr. Khalra for his exposure of the mass cremations crime and his demand for justice for victims. Eliminating this human rights defender was itself a cowardly act and gross violation of human rights.

Given the extent of documentation and judicial findings verifying Mr. Khalra’s investigations, the truth about police abductions, extrajudicial executions, and secret cremations has become impossible to deny. National security cannot be used as an excuse to justify violations of the fundamental human rights guaranteed by India's Constitution and international law, nor to shield perpetrators of these abuses from accountability. The Punjab government’s refusal to investigate these mass crimes compounds the violation of the right to life by also denying survivors their rights to truth, justice, and reparations. The Indian and international communities demand justice for survivors of these abuses.

This year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has focused her commemoration of International Human Rights Day on the issue of torture. We encourage you to heed her call and take meaningful steps towards eliminating the practice of custodial torture in Punjab by prosecuting security forces who have engaged in custodial abuses, removing instruments of torture from police stations and other detention facilities, eliminating the use of clandestine detention facilities, eliminating the practice of police remand, and providing reparations and rehabilitation to victims of torture.

Addressing the following critical human rights issues must be made a priority for your government in protecting human rights in Punjab:

The protection and promotion of perpetrators: The Punjab government continues to protect and promote key officials named repeatedly by victims and human rights groups as perpetrators of torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial executions. These officers now serve in the senior-most ranks of the Punjab police.

For example, in October 2005, the Punjab government brought police officer Sukhmohinder Singh back from retirement and promoted him to the Indian Police Service. The government promoted him despite the charges pending against him in the case of the disappearances of three brothers.

The Central Bureau of Investigation charged Sanjeev Gupta for his role in the April 1993 disappearance of Sukhdev Singh and recommended criminal sanctions against him. Notwithstanding this finding, your government promoted Mr. Gupta to the post of Inspector General of Police, the second highest position in the Punjab police force. Mr. Gupta has been identified repeatedly by witnesses, survivors, and human rights groups as a perpetrator of torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial executions.

Earlier this year, you nominated S.S. Virk to the position of Director General of Police, the head of the police force. S.S. Virk served as Deputy Inspector General of the Central Reserve Police Force during the counter-insurgency movement and has been implicated in cases of torture and extrajudicial execution. Ensaaf has interviewed people who personally survived torture at the hands of S.S. Virk. After the November 18, 2005 judgment convicting two police officers of the murder of human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra, and four others of abduction with intent to murder, S.S. Virk voiced his full support for the convicted officers.

This system of awards and promotions has eroded the rule of law and institutionalized impunity. With such perpetrators at the head of the police force, the people of Punjab face the continued threat of a return to systematic extortion, torture, extrajudicial executions, and disappearances.

We urge you to end these corrupt and unjustifiable actions by removing perpetrators of human rights violations from office and prosecuting them.

Prosecution sanction: Sections 45 and 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure require the prosecutor to apply for prosecution sanction, or permission from the state or central government, before instituting any proceedings against a public servant or member of the Armed Forces. This requirement has prevented and halted cases against senior officers charged with gross human rights abuses. Despite overwhelming evidence implicating police officers in gross human rights violations, the state government has often failed to provide the necessary sanction for prosecutions to proceed.

The Punjab government must provide prosecution sanction for cases proceeding against perpetrators of human rights violations. Further, after conviction, the government must not pardon the officials, but ensure that they receive the full punishment according to law. We urge you to encourage the Governor of Punjab to withdraw his recent pardon of two Punjab policemen, Jaspal Singh and Sawaran Das, convicted of extrajudicial executions.

Continuing custodial torture and death in Punjab: Recent human rights and government reports reveal the widespread practice of torture and custodial deaths in Punjab. The caseload of the Punjab State Human Rights Commission reflects the high incidence of custodial abuse. In August 2005, the Chairperson of the Commission stated that 80% of the complaints received by it implicated police abuse. From January 2004 to November 2004, the Commission received 14,189 complaints, including 87 reports of custodial deaths. Frequent and recent Punjab media reports also demonstrate that police intimidation, custodial torture, and custodial death continue in Punjab, implicating even senior officers, despite the end of the counter-insurgency.

Further, beginning in June 2005, Indian police claim to have arrested several dozen individuals for reviving or supporting militancy in Punjab through Babbar Khalsa International. These arrests center around the apprehension of Jagtar Singh Hawara, the main accused in the 1995 assassination of Punjab’s chief minister. Ensaaf’s investigation into these recent arrests exposes a pattern of custodial abuse of alleged militants.

In August and September 2005, Ensaaf documented 28 cases of detention of Punjabis accused of militancy-related activities. Its report, Punjab Police: Fabricating Terrorism Through Illegal Detention and Torture, Ensaaf reveals that Indian security forces routinely resorted to illegal and incommunicado detention. Further, Punjab police frequently tortured the detainees. Torture methods included electric shocks, tearing the legs apart at the waist, and pulling out the hair of the detainees, among other techniques. The police also threatened and detained immediate family members of the targeted individuals.

The majority of detainees whose experiences are discussed in the report remain in the custody of Indian security forces and continue to be at risk of illegal detention and torture, among other custodial abuses. Since the release of the report, at least another nine cases of militancy related arrests have been reported, including claims of abuse.

Your government must publicly acknowledge and investigate these illegal detentions and cases of torture. Because of conflicting reports between the police and families of the detainees regarding the dates and circumstances of arrest and detention, these cases must be investigated immediately by an impartial body.

Application of lapsed emergency legislation: The government continues to apply the lapsed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) of 1987. TADA establishes in camera courts and authorizes the detention of persons in a “disturbed area” based on mere suspicion. For certain charges, detainees are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Further, in practice, TADA courts admit confessions extracted through torture.

Draconian legislation such as TADA facilitates abuse, by encouraging police torture, fabrication of evidence, and illegal and indefinite detention. We urge the government to end the use of emergency legislation, like TADA, and instead grant detainees fair and speedy trials.

Charging KPS Gill in the murder of human rights defender Jaswant Singh Khalra: In February 2005 at Mr. Khalra’s murder trial, Special Police Officer (SPO) Kuldip Singh testified that then Director General of Police (DGP) KPS Gill personally interrogated Mr. Khalra at the house of then Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Ajit Sandhu. SPO Kuldip Singh had been assigned to guard Khalra during his detention at Jhabal police station, and was also present at Sandhu’s house. DGP Gill came to interrogate Mr. Khalra for about half an hour. When Mr. Khalra was subsequently returned to Jhabal police station, one officer told Mr. Khalra that if he had followed DGP Gill’s instructions, he could have saved his life. Despite SPO Kuldip Singh’s testimony, the prosecution has refused to investigate, charge, or prosecute DGP Gill.

On November 18, 2005, an additional sessions judge convicted two police officers of murdering Mr. Khalra, and four officers of abducting him with intent to murder. However, eyewitnesses recently reported that two of the convicted officers are free, instead of beginning their jail sentences.

We urge you to call for the summoning and charging of KPS Gill in the case of the murder of Jaswant Singh Khalra. Additionally, the convicted police officers must be put behind bars to serve out their sentences. Such blatant impunity must end.

The inquiry report on the extrajudicial execution of Jathedar Gurdev Singh Kaonke: Jathedar Gurdev Singh Kaonke has been missing since his alleged escape from authorities in January 1993. In May 1998, the Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab (CCDP) investigated Gurdev Singh Kaonke’s disappearance. According to the CCDP’s investigation, Mr. Kaonke was arrested from his home in Punjab’s Ludhiana district on December 25, 1992. After his arrest, the police severely tortured him, first at Sadar police station in the Jagraon subdivision of Ludhiana and then at the Criminal Investigation Agency interrogation center from December 25, 1992 to January 1, 1993. The police tortured Mr. Kaonke to death on January 1, 1993.

On June 5, 1998, members of the CCDP met with then Chief Minister of Punjab Parkash Singh Badal to acquaint him with the results of their investigation and demand an official investigation and prosecution of the officials who tortured and murdered Mr. Kaonke. The Chief Minister ordered an official investigation to be conducted by then Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) B.P. Tiwari. The B.P. Tiwari Inquiry Committee submitted its report to the Punjab government in the first week of May 1999. The government, however, chose not to publicly disclose the report. Over six years later, the government continues to refuse to release the Tiwari inquiry report into the disappearance of Mr. Kaonke.

Your government should immediately release the full Tiwari report to demonstrate a new commitment to human rights undertaken on this International Human Rights Day.

The failure to prevent and punish torture and government officials’ impunity for past abuses send the message that the government condones these abuses, facilitating the commission of torture, extrajudicial executions, and disappearances. On International Human Rights Day, we request that you make a commitment to ensure accountability with transparency and an end to impunity for past abuses. We would be happy to provide you with reports and information documenting thousands of cases of torture, disappearances, and killings. We would also welcome the opportunity to help you develop policies, procedures, and practices to redress these mass crimes and prevent their recurrence.

Sincerely,

Jaskaran Kaur, Esq.
Executive Director, Ensaaf

Sukhman Dhami, Esq.
Legal Director, Ensaaf

Cc:

Gen. (Retd.) Sunit Francis Rodrigues
Governor of Punjab and
Administrator, Union Territory, Chandigarh
Fax: 011 91 172 2741058
admr@chd.nic.in