Security Forces Routinely Abuse Sikhs in Custody
(New York, June 20, 2006) – The Indian government must ensure that its security officials do not torture or mistreat Sikh separatist Kulvir Singh Barapind, who was extradited to India from the United States on June 17, Human Rights Watch said today. The Indian security forces have a long history of mistreating Sikh activists in custody.
Barapind’s account of being tortured in the past makes it even more likely that Indian security forces will abuse him again. If Barapind has committed crimes he should be prosecuted in a fair trial, but the Indian government must not allow its own forces to break the law to punish him.
Barapind has made credible allegations to a U.S. federal court that, before coming to the United States, Indian security forces in 1988 and 1989 tortured him to stop his political activism and to make him reveal the identities of other Sikh activists.
“Barapind’s account of being tortured in the past makes it even more likely that Indian security forces will abuse him again,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If Barapind has committed crimes he should be prosecuted in a fair trial, but the Indian government must not allow its own forces to break the law to punish him.”
Barapind described to the U.S. court how the police suspended him in the air from his wrists with his arms tied behind his back, rolled a wooden log over his thighs to crush his muscles, tore his legs apart at his waist to a 180-degree angle, applied electric shocks, and beat him on the soles of his feet, among other methods. He also submitted evidence that Indian officials tortured his family and friends.
Human Rights Watch said that the greatest risk to Barapind, as with many criminal suspects in India, is during police remand, when suspects are detained at police stations for investigations with minimal oversight. The U.S. State Department’s annual country reports on human rights in India have demonstrated a pattern of custodial torture and death of alleged Sikh activists.
“Indian security forces have a long history of abusing criminal suspects and detainees by torturing them,” said Adams. “They’ve used those methods against politically active Sikhs without facing any punishment.”
In the early 1980s, armed separatist groups in India’s Punjab state demanded an independent nation of Khalistan. These groups were responsible for numerous attacks, including indiscriminate bombings, politically targeted killings and killing of Hindus. The government gave the security forces a free hand to destroy the separatist movement, resulting in widespread killings, “disappearances” and torture.
The Punjab violence peaked in June 1984, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent the Indian army into the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the most sacred of Sikh sites, which was being occupied by armed Sikh militants. The brutal battle left nearly 100 Indian security personnel and militants dead, and ended only after most of the militants inside, including militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, had been killed. Some militants were reportedly found with their hands bound and bullets in their heads.
Independent sources estimate that thousands of civilians also perished. The attack soon cost Indira Gandhi her life – two of her Sikh bodyguards assassinated her in October 1984. Blaming Sikhs in general rather than the individuals responsible, members of Gandhi's Congress party organized pogroms against Sikhs in the capital, New Delhi. Victims’ groups, lawyers and activists have long alleged state complicity in the violence.
For the next 10 years, the Indian security forces in Punjab targeted for murder, “disappearance” and arbitrary arrest politically active Sikhs and those who stood up for victims and their families. Violence and intimidation have continued at a lower level since then, but many Sikhs continue to talk of fear of the police and security forces and of receiving threats.
The Indian government asked the United States to extradite Barapind, a former student separatist leader in Punjab, on 11 charges of robbery, murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to murder. Judge Oliver Wanger of the federal district court in California dropped eight of the cases brought against Barapind in the extradition petition, five of them because they fell under the “political offense” exception in the extradition treaty between India and the United States.
In October 2005, the court certified Barapind’s extradition in the three remaining cases, involving six murders and one attempted murder. Barapind’s lawyers submitted evidence that the witness statements failed to identify Barapind or were procured through duress. They argued that if the United States extradited him knowing that he faced a risk of torture, it would be violating U.S. and international law, namely the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which prohibits the return of individuals to countries where they are at risk of being tortured. The court found that the evidence used to support the three cases against Barapind satisfied the probable cause standard, and the political offense exception did not apply.
Before fleeing to the United States in 1993, Barapind was the national joint secretary of the Sikh Students Federation, a political group advocating for an independent Sikh state. Barapind was detained and allegedly tortured in 1988 and 1989 for his political activities. He went into hiding in 1990. The Indian government accused Barapind of being a member of the Khalistan Commando Force, a militant group at the time; Barapind denies being a member of the group.