23 December 2023

Anger in remote parts of Indian-controlled Kashmir as three die in army custody

23 December 2023

Anger is spreading in remote parts of Indian-controlled Kashmir after three civilians died while in army custody, officials and residents have said.

Locals said the Indian army detained at least eight civilians on Friday for questioning, a day after rebels fighting against Indian rule ambushed two army vehicles in the southern Poonch district, killing four soldiers and wounding three others.

The districts of Poonch and Rajouri are close to the highly militarised line of control which divides the disputed Himalayan region between India and Pakistan.

Locals accused army personnel of torturing the three to death in a nearby military camp. The bodies were later handed to local police who contacted the families, and residents said the bodies bore marks of severe torture.

The five other detainees were taken to an army hospital after they were severely tortured, the families said.

Mohammed Younis, a resident, said soldiers came to his Topa Peer village in Poonch district on Friday morning and detained nine villagers, including his two brothers and a cousin. An elderly man was let go, he said, but the others were ruthlessly beaten and electrocuted.

“My two brothers and a cousin are badly hurt due to torture. They are being treated in an army hospital,” Mr Younis said after seeing one of his brothers.

Videos reportedly showing the torture of detained civilians spread online hours after their incarceration, triggering widespread anger.

Authorities cut off internet services on smart devices in Poonch and Rajouri on Saturday morning, a common tactic to dispel possible protests and discourage dissemination of the videos.

Protests erupted in Srinagar, the region’s main city, with at least three pro-India Kashmiri political parties staging demonstrations against the killings.

Mehbooba Mufti, the region’s former top elected official who was once an ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party, said the recent acquittal of an army officer in the killing of three civilians in a staged gun battle three years back had “emboldened” the army, “creating a false precedent among the forces that they can operate without restraint”.

Lieutenant Colonel Suneel Bartwal, an Indian army spokesman, said a search operation for the militants responsible for the ambush has been ongoing since Thursday evening, adding he had no information about the circumstances surrounding the death of the three civilians.

Senior police and civil officials visited the village and supervised the burials. Local officials said police would investigate the incident in an attempt to pacify the villagers.

Nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan each administer part of Kashmir, but both claim the whole territory.

Militants in the Indian-controlled portion have been fighting New Delhi’s rule since 1989. Most Muslim Kashmiris support the rebels’ goal of uniting the territory, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.

India says the militancy is Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Pakistan denies the charge and most Kashmiris consider it a legitimate freedom struggle. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the conflict.

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