- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2007

SRINAGAR, India — The story, as security forces told it, was simple: They had killed a Pakistani militant during a gunbattle in a Himalayan town late last year. The dead man was a member of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, a Pakistan-based group feared across India.

But Abdur Rahman Padder was actually a 35-year-old Indian carpenter and father of five. He died, authorities now say, as part of a murky plot by rogue policemen who were killing innocent villagers to claim rewards and government honors.

The revelation of his death, and the exhumation of his body and the bodies of at least four other civilians believed to have died in similar circumstances, has deeply shaken Kashmir. It has set off days of protests and strikes, and deepened the cynicism of Kashmiris, who have complained for years that innocent people were being killed by security forces.

“Tyrants leave Kashmir!” hundreds of stone-throwing protesters chanted Tuesday as they marched through Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city. “We want freedom!”

Police used tear gas and bamboo batons to battle the demonstrators, eventually detaining 12, said Ahmed Khan, a senior police officer.

Authorities have promised an inquiry, but few Kashmiris are satisfied.

“Killers can’t be judges. How can the police investigate the killings when they are themselves involved in these deaths?” says Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of legal Kashmiri separatist groups.

Mr. Padder disappeared Dec. 8, days after paying his life’s savings — 75,000 rupees, or about $1,700 — to his cousin, a police official, to secure a government job.

Over the ensuing weeks, police investigators trying to track him down traced his mobile phone to members of the police anti-insurgency squad — and began unraveling the plot. Authorities now believe he was killed the night he disappeared during a staged gunbattle, or “encounter killing” as they are known here.

Investigators say Mr. Padder’s cousin, Farooq Ahmed, organized the five killings, and over the weekend he and three other policemen, including two senior officers, were arrested for their role in either carrying out the killings or condoning them.

Mr. Ahmed’s demand for 75,000 rupees for a job, a common practice in India’s corruption-riddled bureaucracies, was pure greed, police say.

Mr. Ahmed “promised my husband a job, robbed him of his hard-earned money and later passed him on to killers,” says Muneera, Mr. Padder’s wife, holding their 3-month-old daughter.

Despite years of accusations, analysts say the array of security forces operating in Kashmir — police, military and paramilitary — are almost never punished for crimes against civilians.

Heightening the problem: Promotions in rank are often handed out based on the number of militants someone kills.

Kashmiris make little secret of their fury at the Indian military. Kashmir is India’s only state with a Muslim majority, and most people favor independence from mainly Hindu India or a merger with predominantly Muslim Pakistan.

India has an estimated 700,000 soldiers in Kashmir, and has fought nearly a dozen rebel groups here since 1989. The rebels are also frequently accused of rights violations — against both Indian forces and civilians they suspect of working with Indian authorities. In many areas, the region has the feel of an occupied country, with soldiers in full combat gear patrolling streets and frisking civilians.

More than 68,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the conflict. Local human rights groups say about 10,000 people have been reported missing since the separatist insurgency began in 1989.

Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad says only 1,017 persons have disappeared in the state — although in 2003 his predecessor put the number at 4,000.

The government says most of the men who disappeared are Kashmiri youth who have crossed the border into Pakistan for weapons training. But local activists believe many of those who dropped from sight wound up dying in staged gunbattles.

“Since 1998, we have been demanding that the government appoint an inquiry commission to probe into disappearance cases in the state,” says Pervez Imroz, a lawyer with the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons.

It’s not clear how many have died in staged killings. Indian security forces say they aggressively investigate such accusations, and point to the small number of prosecutions over the years as evidence they take the issue seriously.

But human rights groups say the track record of the Indian military in Kashmir is poor, and that the government has not kept sufficient control over its forces in the region.

“This epidemic of fake ‘encounter killings’ by the security forces has plagued Kashmir for too long,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement last week.

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