On Wednesday, the army handed out life sentences to five of its men for killing three civilians in the Machil area of North Kashmir in 2010.  The army had originally claimed that Shezad Ahmad, Riyaz Ahmad and Mohammad Shafi from Nadihal were militants who were trying to infiltrate into Kashmir. As it turns out, the three were victims of extra-judicial executions by the army.

But it isn’t clear that the army had really learnt any lessons. On Friday, a teenager named Tariq Ahmad Bhat was shot dead by government forces in Kulgam district in South Kashmir.  He was part of a procession demanding the bodies of two militants killed in an encounter with the army earlier in morning.

“Army and militants are against each other in war but then civilians are also killed,” the teenager’s father, Mohammad Ismail Bhat, told visitors to the family home on Friday.

Third incident

Bhat is third civilian killed by the forces this month so far.  Last week two people (aged 21 and 14) were killed in the outskirts of Srinagar when army opened fire on their car.

Five hundred state force personnel have been involved in human rights violations over the two-decade-long period of unrest in Kashmir, according to a detailed report released by International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir in 2012. It used government documents as the basis for its study. Of the 239 army personnel named, 127 were officers.

On Wednesday, Kashmiri political parties and the families of the dead men hailed the Machil verdict.  “This is indeed a very welcome step,” Chief Minister Omar Abdullah posted on Twitter. “No one in Kashmir ever believed that justice would be done in such cases. Faith in institutions disappeared. I hope that we never see such #Machil fake encounter type of incidents ever again and let this serve as a warning to those tempted to try.”

Symbolic gesture

But human rights organisations and observers said that the army’s verdict in the Machil case was only symbolic. The convictions were “an illustrative case of the manner in which political considerations and interests of the Indian army overrule larger principles of justice and accountability”, said the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.

The group said that the army court had convicted the men two months ago but the decision was made public only now, two weeks ahead of the state elections.

Amnesty International said that the verdict should prompt the authorities to deliver justice in many other such cases of human-rights violations. “The military justice system does not always lead to justice,” it said. “For justice to be the rule and not the exception, all cases of human rights violations should be investigated and prosecuted by independent civilian authorities.”