The central government must heed a Supreme Court ruling on the importance of holding security forces accountable for human rights violations, and repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts which grant soldiers virtual immunity from prosecution in civilian courts, Amnesty International India said today.

The Court is hearing a public interest litigation filed by Imphal-based NGO Human Rights Alert and a victims’ group, seeking its intervention in the cases of 1528 alleged extrajudicial executions in Manipur from 1979 to 2012. In its ruling on 8 July, it said that all the allegations needed to be looked into, and offences committed by security forces could be prosecuted in civilian courts. It asked for more information about the cases. Proceedings will resume in four weeks.

“The Court’s ruling makes it clear that security force personnel accused of human rights violations must not be allowed to get away with impunity. It offers a ray of hope to the families of hundreds of people who were allegedly extrajudicially executed in Manipur over decades,” said Arijit Sen, Project Manager at Amnesty International India.

The Court stated: “If any death was unjustified, there is no blanket immunity available to the perpetrator(s) of the offence. No one can act with impunity particularly when there is a loss of an innocent life. …from the point of view of a citizen, living under the shadow of a gun that can be wielded with impunity, outright acceptance of the proposition advanced [that Army personnel have immunity from civilian trials] is equally unsettling and demoralizing, particularly in a constitutional democracy like ours.”

“We welcome the judgment. It is a positive one. We shall have to wait on what the court decides on our demand for a special investigation team to investigate all the cases. The real sting is yet to come on the nature of investigations on the cases,” said Babloo Loitongbam, Director, Human Rights Alert.

In January 2013, the Court had appointed a three-member commission to determine whether six cases identified by the court were ‘encounter’ deaths – where security forces had fired in self-defence against members of armed groups – or extrajudicial executions. The Commission found that all the cases involved extrajudicial executions, and also said that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) was widely abused by security forces in Manipur.

Parts of Manipur, other north-eastern states and Jammu and Kashmir remain officially declared “disturbed areas”, where the AFSPA is in force. The Act provides soldiers with wide-ranging powers, including the use of lethal force. Prosecution for alleged rights violations in civilian courts requires permission from the central government, which is virtually never given.

“The AFSPA violates constitutional rights to life and liberty and shields soldiers from justice. This judgment underlines that no one should be above the law. The government must recognise the import of this ruling and repeal the AFSPA,” said Arijit Sen.