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Church Supports Call For Repeal Of Law Blamed For Custodial Deaths In Manipur


August 13 2004

Catholic Church leaders in Manipur are voicing support for people demanding the repeal of an "unjust law" they blame for custodial deaths and other abuses in the northeastern Indian state.

Life has been disrupted there for more than a month, with local people protesting alleged misuse of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

The federal government implemented the law in 1958 with the stated aim of helping security forces quell insurgency in the troubled northeastern region. However, paramilitary forces detain people on suspicion, and the bodies of some of these people have been found later near where they were picked up.

Father Jeyaseelan Lazar, chancellor of Imphal archdiocese, says the Church wants "the guilty punished," but only in accord with due legal process. The archdiocese, which covers all of Manipur, is based at the state capital of Imphal, 2,445 kilometers east of New Delhi.

Under the special powers act, a soldier can raid premises without a warrant and also fire upon a person "if he is of the opinion that it is necessary to do so for maintenance of public order after giving such due warning as he may consider necessary." The act also provides legal immunity to the soldier.

Since January at least 33 people have been killed while in custody. The current unrest began July 11 when members of the paramilitary Assam Rifles allegedly raped and killed a Manorma Devi, 32, after taking her from her home.

To get the special powers act repealed, people have organized processions, staged sit-ins, courted arrest and burned government properties. People have sustained wounds as police fired on them with rubber and real bullets for defying curfew orders. Many of the wounded are being treated at Catholic hospitals in the state.

Some women have even stripped in public to express displeasure against the act. A 33-year-old woman, Irom Sharmila, has been on "a fast unto death" for the past three years to demand its repeal. Authorities have been force-feeding her in a hospital almost the whole time.

As protests snowballed, the Manipur government announced Aug. 12 it would lift the act from some areas in Imphal. But people have rejected the proposal. Sharmila has refused to give up her fast until the government lifts the act from the entire state.

Extrajudicial killings reportedly include that of a pastor of the Kuki Christian Church allegedly killed by Assam Rifles men while working in his field. His body was found half-buried in the field July 8. The paramilitary force established by the federal Ministry of Home Affairs functions under the administrative and operational control of the Indian Army, its website says.

The special powers act is in force in all of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland states and in 22 police areas in Tripura. The states are all neighbors.

Father Lazar told UCA News Aug. 12 that the Church "stands in solidarity with the people." At the same time, he clarified the Church "cannot be too partisan and go against the government."

Archbishop Joseph Mittathany of Imphal said the Church "is with the people in their demand for removal of unjust laws." The prelate pointed out that all Catholic schools in the state´s valley region joined the sit-in on several days to show Church solidarity with the people.

"We are empathizing, sympathizing and showing our concern with the people. We condemn the excesses and injustices committed," he asserted.

Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati told UCA News people are united in their protest. The head of the Catholic Church in Assam visited Imphal Aug. 11 to address a workshop the Baptist Church organized on peace building.

Adim Kamei of Manipur Baptist Convention told UCA News his people are "fervently praying for peace and normalcy and to solve the problem in a nonviolent way."

A high-ranking army officer in the state acknowledged that security forces have misused the special powers act on many occasions. "If the security forces read the act carefully, they would not have misused it," said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

People in Manipur also want the Assam Rifles removed from Kangla Fort, ancient palace of the Manipuri kings, which it has used as one of its bases.

However, not all agree with the Manipur people´s demand.

New Delhi-based "The Pioneer," an English-language newspaper, warns that revocation of the act would "seriously undermine counter-insurgency operations in the state," which has a 40-year history of "secessionist insurgency." About 20 secessionist groups currently operate in Manipur.

One Church person, who did not want to be identified, said Manipur is caught "between the devil and the deep sea, as it were." Some others agreed.

Militant groups extort money from people and can paralyze even the state government. They have killed several Church people who defied demands for money. Militants are also accused of siphoning off most of the funds given for developmental works in the state.