UN rights experts raise concern over Kashmir unmarked graves

UN rights experts raise concern over Kashmir unmarked graves

Special rapporteurs express 'regret' over series of letters unanswered by India since 2009 concerning 154 graves with 2 bodies each, 23 mass graves

By Anadolu Agency staff

ANKARA (AA) – Several UN human rights experts have expressed concern to the Indian government about the continued lack of identification and preservation of unmarked single and mass burial sites in Indian-administered Kashmir.

The experts, who include seven special rapporteurs on involuntary disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and the independence of judges and lawyers, also expressed concerns to the Indian government about the “failure to adequately protect such sites and to conduct forensic investigations, in accordance with international standards, to identify the remains of individuals buried in these graves and to establish the cause, manner and circumstances of their deaths, as required for the search processes of the forcibly disappeared.”

In a letter dated July 29, 2022, the experts stated that the Indian government has not implemented the recommendations of the now-abolished Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), which used to investigate cases of human rights violations and make recommendations to the government.

“Nor have they conducted independent, prompt, and effective forensic investigations of reported unmarked and mass grave sites in the districts of Baramulla, Bandipora, Kupwara, Rajouri and Poonch,” the letter reads.

It continues: “Between 1990 and 2009, 2,700 unmarked and mass grave sites containing more than 2,940 bodies were documented across 55 villages in the districts of Baramulla, Bandipora and Kupwara located in Indian-administered Kashmir.”

Among these, 154 graves contained two bodies each and 23 were mass graves with more than two bodies (ranging from 3 to 17).

“Civil society organizations estimate that in the former Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, 100,000 individuals have been extra-judicially killed and 8,000 individuals have been subjected to enforced disappearances in so-called staged ‘encounters’ with State forces since 1989,” it added.

“A large number of the bodies buried in these unmarked and mass grave sites are believed to be victims of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, gender-based and sexual violence, torture, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, allegedly committed by members of the Indian armed forces, paramilitary and police units. Most of the victims are reportedly civilians, mainly belonging to the Muslim minority in India.”

- ‘Hundreds of unmarked graves’

It reads: “In addition, 2,717 unmarked and mass grave sites were discovered in Poonch district and 1,127 such graves in Rajouri district. The Indian Government claimed that foreign fighters were buried in these graves, but reportedly did not substantiate this claim with clear evidence.”

However, records were only available for 49 allegedly identified bodies of killed persons buried in respective grave sites in Indian-administered Kashmir, according to the letter.

“The basis on which the Indian Government had classified the bodies in the unidentified burial sites as ‘unidentified foreign fighters’ was not disclosed. Groups not affiliated with the State indicated that only one person of these identified bodies was revealed to be a local militant, seven bodies remained unidentified, and the outstanding 41 bodies were identified to be local civilians,” these experts said.

Thirty-nine of the 49 identified bodies were reported to be “members of the Muslim minority in India, four were of Hindu faith, and the religious affiliation of seven individuals remains unknown."

“Clandestine burial sites, often unmarked, were allegedly unprofessionally dug by locals under instructions by the Indian armed forces and Kashmiri police next to houses, fields, and schools, on roadsides, in prayer grounds, and in forests in rural and urban areas,” the letter said.

It added that the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances had expressed concern over the existence of unmarked graves in a series of letters in 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2019, but "we regret no replies have been received to date," while thanking the Indian government for responding to the group's concern over the State Human Rights Commission's sudden closure.

- ‘Foreign fighters’

The government that ruled the erstwhile autonomous and undivided state of Jammu and Kashmir between 2002 and 2008 informed the local assembly that more than 4,000 Kashmiri men who, according to their families, had been subjected to custodial disappearance allegedly by Indian forces, had actually gone for arms training to Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Regarding the unmarked graves, both the local and the Indian governments have maintained that they contain the bodies of foreign fighters killed by Indian forces and handed over to local people for burial according to Islamic rites.

During the early 2000s, the bodies of five Kashmiri Muslim civilians were exhumed from unmarked graves in two villages. They were all picked up by police, killed in staged gunfights, and passed off as unidentified militants. Several policemen, including an officer, were sentenced for the murder.

- Disputed territory

Kashmir, a Muslim-majority Himalayan region, is held by India and Pakistan in parts and claimed by both in full. A small sliver of Kashmir is also held by China.

Since they were partitioned in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three wars – in 1948, 1965 and 1971 – two of them over Kashmir.

Also, in the Siachen glacier region of northern Kashmir, Indian and Pakistani troops have fought intermittently since 1984. A cease-fire took effect in 2003.

Some Kashmiri groups in Jammu and Kashmir have been fighting against Indian rule for independence or unification with neighboring Pakistan.

According to several human rights organizations, thousands have reportedly been killed in the conflict since 1989.

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