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IHK shuts down to protest military court verdict

01 February, 2014

SRINAGAR: Large parts of Indian-held Kashmir shut down on Friday and protests were held against a military court verdict last week that exonerated five army officers involved in the killing of civilians 14 years ago.

Most shops and businesses were closed and public transport halted in the main city of Srinagar and other areas of the restive region after separatist groups called a strike over the court's decision. Scores of protesters shouting anti-India slogans pelted stones during clashes with police and paramilitary forces who fired tear smoke canisters to disperse them in the city's old town area. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who also heads a faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a grouping of separatist organisations, urged Kashmiris to "raise our voice against the verdict", in a statement this week.

Police detained more than a dozen activists after they tried to stage a protest near a central commercial district in Srinagar, an AFP photographer said. Hundreds of residents also protested near the graves of the five civilians in the southern village of Brari Angan, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, chanting "we want justice", according to a police officer. The five victims were killed days after the massacre of 35 Sikhs in the remote village of Chattisinghpora in March 2000.

The army claimed the victims were "foreign militants", accusing them of being responsible for the massacre. But a subsequent probe by India's top investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, described the killings as "cold blooded murder", paving the way for a trial in a military court held behind closed doors. The five soldiers were however cleared last Thursday as "the evidence recorded could not establish a prime facie case against any of the accused persons", according to an army statement.

In its verdict, the military court did not dispute the CBI's findings that the victims were civilians but it added that they were killed during an operation "based on specific intelligence". The decision has been denounced by rights groups and Kashmiri separatists and fuelled anger in the already tense region. Security forces, particularly paramilitaries and army personnel, in Indian-held Kashmir are routinely accused by human rights groups of using excessive force and torture. The local government was preparing a "legal recourse" to try to reopen the case, but it is unclear how this could be achieved since the military court handling the case was outside of civilian jurisdiction and scrutiny.

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