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Marchers demand justice for victims of Special Task Force

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People’s Watch, a human rights organisation in India, along with other human rights campaigners embarked on a 10-day march for long-overdue justice for victims of the Special Task Force in the Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu who endured illegal detention, torture, rape, extrajudicial killings, disappearances and humiliation in the state-sanctioned hunt for the bandit Veerappan.

FORUM-ASIA’s member organisation in India, People’s Watch, along with a consortium of human rights organisations, political parties and academics, is running a campaign for the Relief and Rehabilitation of Victims of the Special Task Force (STF) in the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in India. As part of the campaign, the groups organised a “Long march for justice for STF victims” from Sathyamangalam to Chennai on 20-30 April 2008 to demand justice that they say is a decade overdue for the hundreds of victims of the STF.

In 1993, the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu established a Joint Special Task Force which operated in two states to capture forest bandit Veerappan. Human rights violations began almost immediately after the establishment of the task force, whose strategy was intended to terrorise the population. On mere suspicion of links with Veerapan, hundreds of villagers living on the periphery of the forest reserve between the two states were subjected to disappearances, custodial rapes and deaths, torture by electric shock, unlawful imprisonment and depravation of food and water, leaving many of them in a highly traumatised state and unable to lead a normal life. 

From 1993 onwards, several human rights groups and the press have highlighted the hundreds of illegal detentions and other brazen violations by the STF. However, the National Human Rights Commission has failed to acknowledge these facts and take action.

A consortium of NGOs led by People’s Watch ran a campaign for justice for the hundreds of victims in 1999 and conducted fact-finding missions in the provinces to shed light on the violations. They recorded more than 250 cases of abuse, and witness testimonies were presented to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) along with a demand that the commission act in accordance with Section 12 (a) of the Protection of Human Rights Act.

The NHRC finally appointed a panel of inquiry to investigate the allegations. The panel conducted a series of hearings between 1999 and 2001 and heard testimonies from victims and witnesses. The final proceedings of the panel, headed by former High Court judge AJ Sadashiva, were resumed in February 2002, and were subsequently submitted to the NHRC. Despite support from different political parties and extensive media coverage, the report sat idle for more than three years, until civil society expressly requested in 2005 that the NHRC publicise the report. Two weeks later, the report was released to the public.

The report recorded a total of 243 testimonies heard by the panel. One-hundred-and-forty people recounted a litany of abuses: illegal detention, torture, rape, extrajudicial killings, disappearances and humiliation, perpetrated upon them and their families. Yet the panel largely discredited the majority of the allegations on ephemeral contradictions and imagined probabilities. In the rape cases, if the women couldn’t name any witnesses to the act, or if she had failed to report the case before, her credibility was placed in doubt. Based on this reasoning, the panel refused to compensate many of the victims, and only 89 of the 243 received compensation. Lastly, the panel judged it impossible to identify the police personnel involved in the cases, and as such no one was held responsible and the perpetrators of atrocities as torture, rape and murder went unpunished. 

More than a decade after the crimes and extensive campaigning carried out by NGOs, the demands of the victims and those representing them have not been met. The march organised by People’s Watch called for the repeal of the promotions given to officials who were involved in human rights violations, and called for the prosecution of the alleged offenders. Protestors have also asked for compensation for victims of the Special Task Force and for the repeal of false cases lodged on suspicion of being accomplices of Veerappan.

FORUM-ASIA, along with People’s Watch and the consortium of human right defenders that have fought for hundreds of families to be granted reparation, urges the governments of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and the Central Government of India to deliver justice to the victims of the Special Task Force, take actions against the perpetrators, and therefore contribute to ending the impunity of security forces in India.

On 21 April, Henri Tiphagne, Executive Director of People’s Watch, along with 115 other participants, including 38 women and one child, were arrested and placed in police custody, in direct contravention of their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. They were released that same day.

FORUM-ASIA is deeply concerned by the harassment and repression faced by the demonstrators, and encourages civil society to pressure the responsible governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to respect human dignity and to bring long-sought justice to the STF victims – not only reparation for the offenses they have suffered, but also the acknowledgement of this litany of abuses – and to prevent it from ever occurring again.

For full details of the march, please visit the People’s Watch website.