Kashmiris detained and released without trial under a controversial law allowing preventive detentions have told the Telegraph they were tortured by the Indian police.
Exclusive interviews with seven Kashmiris, including a 15-year-old minor, have exposed the extent of the rounding up and brutal torture of civilians in the conflict-ridden region since it was brought under central Indian rule in 2019.
While claims of torture have been lodged by civilians in Kashmir for many years, lawyers say abuse is now commonplace and is taking place during almost every detention.
India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has increasingly used a controversial piece of legislation, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), as it permits detention without charge for up to six months. The legislation has been used at least 690 times since 2019 in Jammu and Kashmir.
One of those who fell foul of the law was Sahil Nazir, 19, who was picked up by police on March 10 in the town of Awantipora after being accused of planning a suicide attack.
Mr Nazir denied the charges and has since been released, but alleges he was beaten with sticks and kicked in the abdomen while imprisoned.
“I was horrified after I saw his condition and the torture marks. I thought he would surely die now,” said Mr Nazir’s father, Mir. “He has grown weak and lost weight. He had torture marks all over his body.”
Mr Nazir developed rhabdomyolysis, a condition where trauma results in muscle fibres being released into the bloodstream, causing acute kidney damage. He required immediate hospitalisation and four rounds of dialysis.
Lawyers in Kashmir told the Telegraph that fewer than one per cent of arrests under the UAPA have resulted in a conviction over the past decade. And nationally, less than three per cent of the 5,922 Indians arrested under the UAPA between 2016-2019 were convicted, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau.
Instead, this and other anti-terror laws appear to be used by India’s increasingly authoritarian BJP to silence opposition.
The largest numbers of arrests have taken place in Jammu and Kashmir, where a pro-independence insurgency has been raging since 1989 and which was stripped of its autonomy by the Indian government in 2019.
Rahul Verma, fellow at the Center for Policy Research, a Delhi think tank, said preventive detention has been used by successive Indian governments.
“In recent times, these laws have come under renewed scrutiny, especially after the courts have recognised that some UAPA arrests are arbitrary.”
On top of the detentions, organisations like Human Rights Watch have detailed forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and gang-rapes of civilians in Jammu and Kashmir.
“Now, over the last three years, the Indian authorities have begun invoking the dreaded UAPA more widely. They want to control and dominate the population of Kashmir through repressive and oppressive tactics,” said Habeel Iqbal, a lawyer working on UAPA cases in Kashmir.
“Whenever anybody is arrested, including the youth, they face physical torture during the first 15 or 20 days of their arrest. It hasn’t been widely reported because these detainees often only get released after six months.”
Detainees across Kashmir reported severe abuse, some for several weeks at a time, following their detention by the Indian police.
“During my interrogation, police would hit me on my shoulders, thighs and bottom. They would slap me repeatedly on my face and hit my face at all times with sticks, even pulling at my beard,” alleged one man in his 30s, who wishes to remain anonymous.
He says he was arrested near the city of Srinagar in January.
“I was kept standing outside in the snow from morning until 8pm and they would not allow me to sleep. One of them hit me so hard on my right hand that my thumb got dislocated and I still feel numbness in it,” the man alleged.
He was then transferred to jail over 700 kilometres away in the state of Haryana, before being finally released in July after a court said there were no “compelling reasons” to detain him.
“The torture remains with them for a long, long time,” said Mr Iqbal, “People act completely differently after they are released, they remain within themselves. They are not the same person afterwards.”
Children also allege they were tortured. The parents of a 15-year-old boy said their son was “subjected to electric current shocks and beaten with sticks on his shoulders, thighs, legs, arms, back, and fingertips” after being accused of detonating a mine.
His parents say his initial police confession was obtained under duress. The minor has now been released and sent to a trauma recovery facility.
“People are being severely tortured to confess to crimes that they have not done. They are put in solitary confinement and children are put with criminals,” said Sabia Dar, an activist with the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons.
“Private parts are tortured, people are hung upside down and their bodies are beaten with sticks, while others have electric shocks on their fingertips, ears, hands and feet.”
India’s preventive detention laws faced scrutiny earlier this month after the death in detention of 84-year-old Father Stan Swamy, one of the country’s highest-profile human rights activists.
Activists allege his detainment was politically motivated and he was punished for vocally supporting the rights of India’s exploited tribal populations.
“Ensuring public safety is the state’s responsibility but unfortunately, the Indian authorities have been using counter-terror laws to arbitrarily detain people. In many cases, charges are never filed and in others, trials can take a long time while people remain in jail until judges find the evidence against them insufficient,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, the Head of South Asia at Human Rights Watch.
“There are serious allegations of mistreatment in custody. It is concerning that there is no accountability or reparations for such abuses.”
The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs did not respond to the Telegraph’s request for comment. Courtesy The Telegraph