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17 January, 2008

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch demand independent probe of Nandigram violence

The West Bengal government should immediately create an independent and impartial inquiry into serious acts of violence in Nandigram since early 2007, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

The state government should prosecute those responsible for human rights abuses and examine both the social-political origins of the violence and the failure of state authorities to provide effective protection to the community.

A fact-finding team—comprised of Justice (Retd) S.N. Bhargava, former Chief Justice, High Court of Sikkim; Vrinda Grover, advocate; Meenakshi Ganguly, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch; and Mukul Sharma, director of Amnesty International India —visited Nandigram and Kolkata from 28 to 30 November. The team travelled to affected villages, relief camps, and met with the victims of the violence in Nandigram, as well as government officials and rights activists.

"It was obvious during our visit to Nandigram that state authorities had not acted in an impartial manner," said Meenakshi Ganguly, senior South Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch. "The political nature of this violence, involving the ruling party of West Bengal, means there must be an independent inquiry to prevent impunity for the perpetrators. "

Throughout 2007, tensions over control of land in Nandigram led to a series of violent incidents between supporters of the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and farmers belonging to the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC). Protesting villagers blockaded the Nandigram area to oppose a government plan to acquire land for industry. Instead of responding appropriately to violations of the law by protesters, the authorities appeared to treat the protest as a challenge to the CPI-M and used excessive force against the protestors. BUPC members were also responsible for acts of violence. At least 25 people were killed, hundreds injured and thousands displaced from their homes.

In November, CPI-M supporters and armed thugs forcibly ended the blockade. In retribution for the protest, they attacked villagers supporting the BUPC, burned down their homes, threatened further violence if villagers went to the authorities, and humiliated them by compelling them to join CPI-M rallies. The state administration removed police posts before CPI-M supporters advanced into the area, strongly suggesting governmental complicity in the abuses.

Villagers in affected areas reported to the fact-finding team that CPI-M supporters frequently subjected women to violent attacks, including rape and beatings, as well as to threats and harassment. There is no evidence that the police have sought to arrest those named in police complaints. Victims, particularly women who risk social censure by reporting rape, remained vulnerable to threats and further attacks from perpetrators who roam free.

"The tragedy of the reported rapes at Nandigram has been compounded by the failure of the police to seriously investigate these cases, keeping the victims at grave risk," said Ganguly.
Based on the team's findings, Amnesty International has produced a report titled, " Urgent need to address large scale human rights abuses during Nandigram "recapture.' " The report concludes that the inaction of the West Bengal state government, including tacit acceptance of the violent operations of the armed supporters of the CPI-M, resulted in serious human rights abuses, including unlawful killings, abductions, sexual assault of women and forced eviction and displacement of thousands of people in 2007.

It is disturbing that the West Bengal authorities failed to prevent the violence at Nandigram and failed to arrest the perpetrators, " said Mukul Sharma, director of Amnesty International, India, "Weeks after peace had supposedly been restored, we learned that the perpetrators were still roaming free, celebrating their victory by threatening and beating up local residents."
The impunity enjoyed by those perpetrating abuses in Nandigram since the violence began in early 2007 fuelled the widespread abuses committed later in the year. The Chief Minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, contributed to the violence in November by saying that the protesters had been "paid back in the same coin," a comment which he retracted three weeks later, admitting the events were a "political and administrative failure."

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said access to justice for the victims of the violence went beyond the successful prosecution of those responsible. The West Bengal government has an obligation to protect the rights of all those displaced by ensuring they can safely return to their homes and places of habitual residence and providing restitution for all damage suffered. Women who suffered abuse must receive proper protection and an effective remedy.

"The authorities must show clear political will to end the climate of violence in Nandigram," Sharma said. "For lasting peace, all those responsible for the violence must be prosecuted and the victims must receive redress."

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