End state support for anti-Maoist vigilantes: rights body

July 15th, 2008 - 4:22 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, July 15 (IANS) The Indian and Chhattisgarh governments should hold accountable security forces and state-backed vigilantes responsible for “attacking, killing and forcibly displacing” thousands in anti-Maoist operations, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday. In a report, Human Rights Watch called for an end to all government support for unlawful activities by the Salwa Judum vigilantes and urged affected state governments to take immediate measures to protect the tens of thousands displaced in violence.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Maoists, known as Naxalites, to end attacks on civilians and other abuses.

The 182-page report, “‘Being Neutral Is Our Biggest Crime’: Government, Vigilante, and Naxalite Abuses in India’s Chhattisgarh State,” documents human rights abuses against civilians, particularly indigenous tribal communities, caught in a tug-of-war between government forces and the vigilante Salwa Judum and Naxalites.

Human Rights Watch found that since mid-2005, government security forces and members of the Salwa Judum, which it said was falsely described by officials as a spontaneous people’s anti-Naxalite movement, attacked villages, killed and raped villagers, and burned down huts to force people into government camps.

Human Rights Watch collected more than 50 eyewitness accounts of attacks involving government security forces in 18 villages in Dantewada and Bijapur districts in Chhattisgarh.

At the same time, the Naxalites have carried out bombings and have abducted, beaten, and executed civilians, particularly those suspected of supporting the Salwa Judum.

It said that tens of thousands of internally displaced people were stranded in government camps in Chhattisgarh or in the forestlands of neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

“The Chhattisgarh government denies supporting Salwa Judum, but dozens of eyewitnesses have described police participating in violent Salwa Judum raids on villages - killing, looting, and burning their hamlets,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and member of the research team.

“Instead of promoting vigilantes, the Chhattisgarh government should be promoting respect for human rights and pursuing accountability.

Naxalites have retaliated in a brutal manner, abducting, assaulting and killing civilians perceived to be Salwa Judum supporters. Even before the conflict escalated in mid-2005 due to Salwa Judum’s operations, the Naxalites have been responsible for widespread human rights abuses including torture, extortion, summary executions and the recruitment of child soldiers.

The conflict has given rise to one of the largest internal displacement crises in India - at least 100,000 people have resettled in camps in southern Chhattisgarh or fled to neighbouring states, principally Andhra Pradesh, according to Human Rights Watch.

Those living in camps have limited access to government health care or livelihood opportunities. Basic sanitation is often lacking.

According to some camp residents, the government has cut or failed to provide free food rations. The conflict has forcibly displaced and resettled many other villagers to sites in southern Chhattisgarh that are not recognised as camps by the government, Human Rights Watch said.

“Thousands of families have lost their land, homes and livelihoods, and now survive in crowded and decrepit camps with little assistance,” said Becker. “Chhattisgarh officials should help restore the lives of those who wish to return to their homes, and improve conditions for those who fear returning.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Maoists to immediately end all attacks against civilians and allow camp residents to return to their home villages without reprisals.

The report highlights the impact of this conflict on children’s lives. The Naxalites have long used children as young as six years old as informers and children from 12 years old in armed operations.

The Chhattisgarh Police too have recruited and used children as special police officers to assist government security forces in the region, often deploying them in high-risk anti-Maoist combing operations.

While the Chhattisgarh police have acknowledged this as an error, the government is yet to devise a scheme for systematically identifying, demobilising, and rehabilitating such underage special police officers.

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