In a rare admission, Indian military says its soldiers in disputed Kashmir abused their powers in the killings of three labourers it had passed off as "Pakistani terrorists."
The Indian army has said its soldiers exceeded their powers during an alleged "fake gun battle" in Kashmir that killed three men, in a rare admission of wrongdoing in the flashpoint Himalayan region.
On Friday, Indian army spokesperson Rajesh Kalia said the soldiers in the operation had "exceeded" their powers and "contravened" the guidelines governing military conduct in Kashmir.
"Disciplinary proceedings" would be taken against those responsible, Kalia added.
Soldiers deployed by New Delhi have long been accused of abusing their emergency powers in disputed Kashmir, a territory India claims in full but shares with arch-rival Pakistan.
The three men — cousins whom the army claimed were suspected "Pakistani terrorists" — were killed in a counterinsurgency operation on July 18 in the southern Kashmir valley, and buried in a remote border area.
But their families, who identified their bodies from pictures on social media, said they were local labourers.
The families of the young men — cousins aged 18, 21, and 25 — said they were last heard from on July 17.
Outrage in Kashmir
The incident generated outrage in Kashmir, with political groups, rights activists, and many residents demanding an independent probe into the deaths.
A concurrent police investigation into the killing had yet to establish the involvement of the three men "with terrorism or related activities," the army statement added.
Indian police normally accompany troops on such operations, although officials said this had not happened in the July operation. The police later buried the bodies in a remote graveyard.
The men's families say the awaited results of a DNA test ordered as part of the investigation will prove they were local men.
Muhammad Yusuf, a sheep farmer, had told Anadolu Agency that his son Abrar Ahmad and his two cousins had left home on July 16 for work in Shopian. They had been going to the district for the past few years during the apple harvest.
‘Disciplinary action’ for premeditated murder seems as far from justice as the jackboot of colonialism is from humanity.— Mirza Waheed (@MirzaWaheed) September 18, 2020
Past staged battles
The "fake encounter" in July revived memories of similar incidents across the restive territory where a three-decade-old anti-India insurgency has left tens of thousands dead, mainly civilians.
In 2010, three Indian army officers were found guilty of killing three labourers who had been branded as Pakistani infiltrators near the disputed border known as the Line of Control.
The killings sparked months of protests that left more than 100 civilians dead.
In 2000, the army claimed it had killed five "terrorists" responsible for the massacre of 35 Sikhs, but an investigation found the five were locals killed by soldiers in a staged gun battle.
It is alright, now you can speak of #ShopianEncounter, Since the Army has admitted, that the trio were labourers.— قاضی شبلی (@QaziShibli) September 18, 2020
Many from these Rajouri areas work as labourers across Kashmir, so was the trio who left home with a hope of earning livelihood for their families amid #COVID__19
Draconian emergency laws
A slew of special emergency laws protect Indian soldiers serving in Kashmir from facing trial in civilian courts, and convictions in military courts are extremely rare.
Rights activists and ordinary Kashmiris say the "draconian" Armed Forces Special Powers Act (or AFSPA), gives the Indian military in Kashmir sweeping powers to search, seize and even shoot suspects on sight without fear of prosecution.
Under the act, local authorities need federal approval to prosecute erring army or paramilitary soldiers in civilian courts.
The special powers were given to the military in 1990, a year after an armed rebellion erupted in Kashmir seeking the Himalayan region's independence or a merger with neighbouring Pakistan.
India has long relied on military force to retain control over the portion of Kashmir it administers and has fought two wars over the territory with Pakistan, which also claims the mountain region as its own.
India has rejected every request since 1989 to prosecute Indian soldiers in civilian courts in Kashmir for alleged rights abuses including murder and rape, according to official documents.
READ MORE: No one killed three civilians in Kashmir