Army shield on the line

New Delhi, Jan. 23: Immunity for the security forces under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act should be withdrawn if men in uniform commit sexual offences against women, Justice J.S. Verma committee said today.

"Security forces committing sexual crimes must be brought under the purview of ordinary criminal law," said Gopal Subramaniam, one of the three members of the Justice J.S. Verma panel and a former solicitor-general.

The AFSPA, which was passed by Parliament on September 11, 1958, grants special powers to the armed forces in some states in the Northeast and in Jammu and Kashmir.

In a strong dismissal of the current policy, the committee said the AFSPA was legitimising sexual violence against women in conflict zones.

"We notice the impunity of systematic or isolated incidents of sexual violence against women by armed personnel in the process of performing internal security duties is being legitimised by the AFSPA which is imposed in large parts of the country," Subramaniam said.

"It must be recognised that women in conflict areas are entitled to all the security and dignity that is accorded to citizens in any other part of our country," he added.

The panel said such acts by men in uniform cause "alienation" and distrust between the citizens and the country. "The brutalities of the armed forces faced by residents in the border areas have led to a deep disenchantment and the lack of mainstreaming of such persons into civil society. Serious allegations of persistent secular assault on the women in such areas and conflict areas are causing more alienation," the report said.

A human rights activist from Manipur, Babloo Loitongbam, said over phone from Imphal that the recommendations assumed significance as a Supreme Court bench, headed by then Chief Justice Verma, had upheld the constitutional validity of the army act, imposed in large parts of the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, 16 years ago. The bench heard seven petitions ' the first of which was filed by the Manipur Human Rights Forum in October 1980 ' challenging the constitutionality of the act.

Manipur activists have also been pursuing the case of Th. Manorama, who was raped and killed allegedly by Assam Rifles jawans on July 11, 2004. The case is pending in the Supreme Court.

The report submitted today said: "There is an imminent need to review the continuance of AFSPA and AFSPA-like legal protocols in internal conflict areas as soon as possible. This is necessary for determining the propriety of resorting to this legislation in the areas concerned."

Subramaniam said the committee's views on the subject were "informed" by the plight of a large number of women in Kashmir, the Northeast, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.

The committee recommended appointment of special commissioners to ensure the safety of women in all conflict areas. It recommended "special care for safety of complainants and witnesses in cases of sexual assault by armed personnel".

Subramaniam said India is a signatory to international conventions on protection of all persons from enforced disappearance and needs to get its act right.

The report suggested introduction of a new section (Section 376 F) in the IPC to define and punish the offence of "breach of command responsibility". This section aims to hold responsible officers under whose authority sexual crimes are committed.

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