In Kashmir, old torture centers get makeover

In Kashmir, former torture centers are being refurbished into pricey homes and even an IT hub as the international spotlight grows on India's use of torture.

In the foothills around Srinagar, overlooking tranquil Dal Lake, sits the stately bungalow of a former chief minister of Kashmir. The lawn is perfectly cropped and the air filled with birdsong.

But for Abdul Qadeer, who was once imprisoned in the house, the place evokes memories of howls of pain and the smell of flesh.

“I was blindfolded and my hands were tied behind my back. Everything smelled of stale flesh, and I thought I had been brought into a butcher’s shop,” says Mr. Qadeer, recalling his first moments in what was the most dreaded torture center in Srinagar.

During the Kashmir uprising of the 1990s, Indian forces commandeered cinema halls, hotels, heritage buildings, and even government school buildings, turning some of them into torture centers for those suspected of supporting Kashmir’s separation from India.

When the armed militancy declined over the past decade, the government started to remove some torture houses from the landscape to back its claim of a return to normalcy in the Kashmir Valley and usher in tourists. The state is now converting one torture center to a police information technology hub. Other prime properties have been snapped up by Kashmir’s top politicians and bureaucrats.

“It is criminal that the torture centers where people disappeared and were mutilated have been fashioned into houses and are not being investigated,” says Parvez Imroz, lawyer and human rights activist.

Mr. Imroz is compiling the most extensive document on India’s use of torture to the present day. His efforts formed the centerpiece of a BBC Channel 4 documentary that aired last night called “Kashmir’s Torture Trail,” and in 2005 he was awarded the Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize, first given to Nelson Mandela.

His group’s inquiry into torture will be filed with the United Nations and Human Rights Watch later this summer. His group also says 8,000 to 10,000 people disappeared in custody in the past 23 years. The state government acknowledged for the first time in 2011 that thousands of bodies lie in unmarked graves around Kashmir.

In 2010, Wikileaks revealed that International Committee for the Red Cross staff had informed US diplomats that they had interviewed 1,296 detainees in Kashmiri prisons between 2002 and 2005, and 681of them had gone through one or more of six forms of torture: electric shocks, leg crushing, leg stretching, suspension from a ceiling, water boarding, and sexual assault.

India has not allowed the UN’s special rapporteur for torture to visit Kashmir since 1993. The country has signed but not ratified the UN Convention against Torture.

India’s attorney general, GE Vahanvati, appeared in Geneva this May and told the UN Human Rights Council that “India has the ability to self-correct,” noting that a Prevention of Torture Bill is pending before parliament.

"The challenges we face are by no means small," he added. "There are threats to the fabric of our country. Our country has been the target of terrorist activities over the last three decades."

Miloon Kothari, a UN official with the Human Rights Council, said that India's initial response was "defensive," and "lost the opportunity to constructively engage with the UN human rights system."

Rights groups also warn that the Indian anti-torture bill would still not comply with UN Convention against torture.

Torture cases filed in court against armed forces in Kashmir have gone nowhere, and now the landscape remains dotted with many torture houses of past and present like Cargo, Gogaland, Militia, Matches-factory, Badamibagh Cantonment, and JIC Humhama. (Clarification: The story was amended to clarify that some of these are past places of torture.)

Before armed conflict erupted in 1989, Papa II was Fairview Guesthouse, a scenic bungalow for visiting officials. India’s Border Security Force took it over, nailing black blankets to the windows and bringing in tools of torture: field rollers, iron hooks, strapping benches, pipes for water boarding, electric wires, and needles.

“I was there for 25 days and I never saw the sun. I only heard cries of people and my own cries coming from the torture chamber. I was never questioned there; only tortured. Those 25 days seemed like 25 lifetimes gone wrong,” says Qadeer.

Qadeer was then a commander of the militant outfit Al Jihad, and after his arrest in 1995, he was taken for torture to half a dozen torture centers. He now heads the People’s Rights Movement, a civil society organization of former Kashmiri militants. The group counts more than 670 torture centers in Kashmir where its members were subjected to torture. 

People who returned after torture – with broken bones, amputated limbs, burnt flesh, pulled-out nails - also brought along stories of horror that were meant to scare others.

“Torture was systematically used by the Indian state in Kashmir to discourage people from organizing politically or socially. The Indian state condones torture in Kashmir,” says Imroz, the lawyer.

Qadeer also spent time in Hari Niwas, an abandoned queen’s palace, which served as the Joint Interrogation Center during the 1990s.

“They used different tactics of torture there [in Hari Niwas]. They tortured you and also asked you questions and allowed you to speak,” says Qadeer. “Papa II made you wish that you were allowed to speak, and then after endless days of torture, you could speak in Hari Niwas.”

In 2007, Hari Niwas became the official residence of Ghulam Nabi Azad, another chief minister of Kashmir, who renovated it at a cost of more than $2 million from the state exchequer. JIC had already moved to an inconspicuous building near the Srinagar airport.

Cargo, a huge concrete building housing the infamous Special Operations Group of the state police, was started in 1994 and used as a torture house, which it continues to be, according to Imroz. According to Wikileaks, ICRC staff had told the US diplomats that the ICRC could not gain access to the Cargo even after multiple attempts.

During 2008 and 2010, hundreds of young boys who had pelted stones at Indian security forces were subjected to torture there, he says. The state is now converting Cargo into the state police’s IT hub, wiping away its past.

“In 2010, five young boys alleged that they had been sodomized by the police, but the courts are so slow and the police so powerful here that they eventually took their case back,” says Imroz. 

He adds that security forces "don’t even need the old torture centers anymore; ... they still turn everything into a torture center.”

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