Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Indian police reveal Kashmiri custody death toll

James Orr and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday February 20 2008

A Kashmiri boy walks in a graveyard in Srinagar, India

A Kashmiri boy walks in a graveyard in Srinagar, India. Photograph: Mukhtar Khan/AP

More than 330 people have died while in police custody in Indian-controlled Kashmir over the past 18 years, official figures revealed today.

A police investigation found a further 111 people had disappeared from cells with no further information on what had happened to them.

Human rights groups believe government forces could be behind far more disappearances, claiming up to 10,000 people have gone missing since 1989.

India has an estimated 700,000 soldiers stationed in the disputed Himalayan region in an effort to combat groups fighting for independence.

The Jammu-Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society said today the police figures were likely to be the tip of the iceberg.

The group said 178 Kashmiris had died in police custody in the past five years alone. A further 239 had disappeared after being taken by government forces.

Pervez Imroz, a spokesman for the coalition, said: "It's anybody's guess how brutal security apparatus with a sweeping policy of catch and kill would have been in early 90s."

Indian forces have been fighting nearly a dozen separate rebel groups in Kashmir since the outbreak of an Islamist insurgency in 1989.

Factions include militants who support the fight for Kashmir's independence from India and those who support its merger with a Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Police and rebel groups have been accused of human rights violations against civilians living in the territory. More than 40,000 people have been killed since the fighting began.

Imroz claimed police in Kashmir regularly killed innocent people and said up to 10,000 people had disappeared after being detained by government forces.

Police officials stood by their figures however, and said any human rights abuses were properly investigated.

"We believe in facts and figures, and whenever allegations have been found true, action has been taken," said Kuldeep Khoda, the state police chief.

Last year, authorities charged seven policemen with the murder of five civilians whom they allegedly attempted to pass off as militants and claim substantial rewards.

The charges were the first to be brought against policemen since the start of the insurgency.

The disputed region of Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan. The countries have fought two wars over control of the territory since they gained independence from Britain in 1947.

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