The Ramabai Killings

 

Fifty years of independence. The salute of fifty bullets. Ten Dalits murdered. This is our independence.

~ Poster in Ramabai colony135

(Excerpt from the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's 'Untouchables')

Excessive use of force by members of the police is not limited to the rural areas that are largely the focus of previous chapters in this report. Police abuse against the urban poor, slum dwellers, Dalits, and other minorities has included arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial executions, and forced evictions.136 Because they cannot afford to bribe the police, Dalits and other poor minorities are disproportionately represented among those detained and tortured in police custody. Although the acute social discrimination characteristic of rural areas is less pronounced in cities, Dalits in urban areas, who make up the majority of bonded laborers and street cleaners, do not escape it altogether. Many live in segregated colonies which have been targets of police raids.

This chapter describes a July 1997 incident in Bombay in which police opened fire on a crowd of Dalits protesting the desecration of a statue of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar in their settlement. The firing, which killed ten and injured twenty-six, was in direct violation of international standards on the use of firearms by law enforcement officials and of Bombay Police Manual guidelines. According to human rights groups and colony residents, the firing was unprovoked and caste-motivated.

The Killings

On July 11, 1997, residents of Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar, a predominantly Dalit-populated urban colony in Bombay, woke up to find their statue of Dr.Ambedkar desecrated by a garland of sandals around his neck. The placing of shoes or sandals around the neck of the likeness of a person is taken as a sign of extreme disrespect and is usually an attempt to denigrate that person and his or her beliefs.137 When residents complained of the desecration to Local Beat No. 5 Pantnagar Police, located ten feet away from the statue, they were told to lodge a complaint at the Pantnagar police station. By 7:00 a.m. the growing crowd began protesting and blocked the Eastern Express Highway in front of the colony. Within minutes, members of the Special Reserve Police Force (SRPF),138 led by Sub-Inspector M. Y. Kadam, arrived in a van and stopped in front of the colony, hundreds of meters away from the statue and the protests on the highway. SRPF constables opened fire on pedestrians on the service road in front of the colony and later into alleys between colony houses. The firing lasted for ten to fifteen minutes and killed ten people. Most of the victims were shot above the waist. Sub-Inspector Kadam and his SRPF constables left soon after the firing, only to be replaced by the city police and other SRPF members.139

Four hours later, at 11:30 a.m., at a site 150 meters away from the firing and 300 meters away from the desecrated statute, an angry crowd set fire to a luxury bus. At 2:00 p.m. twenty to twenty-five police officers entered Ramabai colony, started spreading tear gas, and began lathi-charging residents in their homes. At 4:00 p.m. they lathi-charged again. By late afternoon, twenty-six people had been seriously injured, and Local Beat No. 5 had been destroyed by protesters. Sub-Inspector Kadam, who ordered the firing, had a number of cases of "atrocities" against Dalits pending against him. Kadam's former supervisor and SRPF commandant Vasant Ingle had previously charged Kadam with being "anti-Dalit": he had accused Kadam of mistreating a subordinate for "casteist reasons"and had ordered his suspension for violating the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.140 Ingle has also charged that Kadam's excessive use of force in dealing with Ramabai residents was a direct result of his caste prejudice. Kadam has denied this charge.141

The Ramabai incident led to significant unrest throughout the state of Maharashtra, including rioting and social boycotts against protesting Dalits.142 A two-member team of the Indian People's Human Rights Commission (IPHRC), a Bombay-based NGO, visited the districts of Nagpur, Amravati, Yavatmal, and Wardha in October 1997 to investigate violence against Dalits in the wake of disturbances related to protests against the Ramabai incident. According to an article in the Times of India, the team concluded that in various villages, "the police had abetted supporters of the ruling Shiv Sena-BJP alliances... in committing atrocities on Dalits and terrorising them" and that "the people owing allegiance to the ruling alliance parties had made determined efforts to terrorise and punish the Buddhists [converted Dalits] for having dared to protest against the shameful act of desecration of the Ambedkar statue."143 According to IPHRC, such efforts included the stripping and parading of a Dalit woman in Karanja-Ghadge village in Wardha district. She was later reportedly framed for murder by the police after she complained of her ill-treatment.144

Soon after the firing, the Maharashtra state government appointed a commission of inquiry, headed by Justice S. D. Gundewar, to determine whether "the steps taken by the police to deal with the large crowd and to disperse it were adequate, in accordance with the procedure established for riot control," or if the force used was excessive. The commission was also asked to report on measures, general or specific, "which are required to be taken by the police and the administration to avoid such occurrence in the future."145

According to several eyewitness accounts and fact-finding reports, including that of the Indian People's Human Rights Commission, the National Alliance ofPeople's Movements, and the Air Corporation SC/ST Employees Association,146 the firing went on intermittently for at least fifteen minutes. In a statement of claim submitted before the Gundewar Commission of Inquiry, an eyewitness described the manner in which the police began firing. Before firing they "did not lathi-charge, burst tear gas shells, fire a few rounds in the air or... make any serious, positive efforts to disperse people" but instead, "in a designed manner, deliberately, intentionally opened fire on innocent masses."147

A senior-level official in the Bombay police department, who wished to remain anonymous, told Human Rights Watch he believed that the SRPF engaged in excessive use of force. This particular official did not believe that the firing was caste-motivated. He did, however, characterize members of the SRPF as "trigger-happy." He then added, "I would have shot at one, in the leg, to get the message across, not killed ten. They do commit excesses. They killed too many people. They sit around with nothing to do until they get called in, and then they overreact."148

In February 1998 Human Rights Watch visited Ramabai colony and spoke to many of its residents. Monk Kashyap, an eyewitness, told Human Rights Watch about the sequence of events in the early-morning firing:

I heard screaming; I went out to see. It was early. I was standing outside about thirty meters away. They didn't shoot me, because I was wearing my monk's robe. They told me to leave. Everyone was sleeping. I saw forty or fifty people saying, "Rasta roko" ["block the road"]. Two police cars [city police] went straight through and did not stop. An SRPF van came. One or two protesters must have thrown stones at private cars. There were no shots above the head, just a direct shoot. First they hit Kaushaliyabhai Patare. The bullet went through her and hit the medical dispensary 150 meters away. She was forty-five. She died on the spot. I kept watching. They said, "Sadhu [monk], get out of here." I came inside but kept looking through the window. Sukhdev Kapadne was there. They grabbed him and put him in the car. Then they asked him who he was. He said he was a social worker and they told him to go. Then they shot him in the back. The bullet came out of his chest, and he fell forward. He was fifty years old.149

Monk Kashyap also witnessed the shooting of Sukhdev Kapadne, Kaushaliyabhai, Amar Dhanawade, Vilas Dodke, and Anil Garud, all of whom "died on the spot."150 After the initial firing, police charged forward into the housing areas. Once they were fully inside the colony, the firing continued. Most residents were caught completely by surprise. One of the bullets hit Bablu Verma and killed him: "He trembled like a fish and died. If someone tried to help him they would shoot at him too. He was twenty-six years old."151 Shridevi Giri was also injured by bullets. "I was hit in the arm twice," she said as she showed us her scars. Another woman stepped into the alley and saw her husband shot: "I was standing outside my door and saw the bullet hit my husband in the stomach."152 Babu Phulekar was also standing in the alley and was also injured.

V. S. Khade, a prominent member of the community, confirmed the manner of attack: "They did not say anything. There was no lathi-charge, no tear gas, no bubble bullets, just a direct firing." Khade lost his nephew's son in the firing.

He used to stay with us more after his mother died in 1994. On that day he was going to work. The crowds wouldn't allow him to cross the highway. So he came back and told my wife and my daughter not to go outside. Then he went to inform his father, who was one kilometer away. Before he could get there he was shot and killed. His brother and uncle went to pick him up, but the police shouted, "Don't touch him or we'll shoot you too." I heard the shots. When I arrived he was already dead. He was only seventeen.153

Soon after the incident took place, colony residents proceeded to the Pantnagar police station to lodge a complaint against the police involved in thefiring. The police refused to record or register a complaint.154 By 11:00 a.m. all the bodies had been transported to the hospital, though none had been taken by the police. Colony residents described the scene later that day:

There were hundreds of officers. They tried to keep everyone quiet. There was no firing and no lathi-charge. Then at 2:00 p.m. twenty to twenty-five police came in the colony and started spreading tear gas. They shouted, "Close your doors and windows and don't come out." People went back inside. One person was injured from the tear gas. He was burned from the thighs down. The police left soon thereafter, but people were still going to the hospital until 11:00 p.m. that night. Everyone who died died on the spot. On the spot they killed ten people.155

Milind, the nineteen-year-old tear gas victim, spoke to Human Rights Watch about his experience with the police before and after being burned:

It was 6:00 a.m.; I was in my store. I had been working there for one or two months. Someone came and told me what had happened to the statue. I saw the garland of shoes. Someone said bring the dogs, bring the police. I heard it all. I came home because I was tired. At around 1:30 or 2:00 p.m., they threw tear gas next door. We heard the explosion and saw smoke, and I went outside. I stood outside, and they threw tear gas on me. I was only wearing a towel. I fell down. My legs were burning, and blood was coming out. My underwear and towel crumbled to the floor. My mother started screaming, "My son is dying, my son is dying." A police officer told her, "Get in the house or I will shoot you."156

According to Milind, a police officer put him in a van to take him to the hospital, where, after an hour and a half, the doctors stitched his wounds, and the police took him to the police station to "take his statement." Along with hisparents, Milind arrived at the station at 6:00 p.m. As of 11:30 p.m. he had not eaten and was told that he would not be fed.

I asked for water, and they said, "Drink your urine." They kicked out my parents at 2:30 a.m. and said, "Go home or you'll also be arrested." Then they threw me in the lock-up and started beating me. They shouted, "Ramabai people destroyed our police station. You won't get food or water." They started beating me with their sticks; on my back, on my legs. Blood started coming out of my legs. Inspector Marate came in. I told him what his officers were doing, and he called me a motherfucker. "Ramabai's people should be treated this way," he shouted. He was talking about Dalits. Then he slapped me and told me to go to sleep. I went to bed without any medicine or food.157

According to an article in the Bombay-based weekly, Sunday Mid-Day, the senior inspector of the Pantnagar police station, where Milind was held overnight, stated that Milind was "part of the mob which set the police chowky [booth] in Ramabai Colony on fire. To disperse the mob tear gas shells were fired, and he sustained leg injuries." He added that Milind was brought back to the police station after treatment and kept under detention until things "cooled out." "Why would we beat him when he was already injured?" he asked.158

The following afternoon Milind's parents arrived at the police station with a letter from Bharati Jadhav, Pantnagar's municipal councillor. Milind was released and admitted to the hospital, where he remained for one and a half months. His family paid for his treatment and his medicines. Although they did receive some money from local politicians, they received nothing from the government. He also did not get the job that the government had promised him as compensation. As Milind told Human Rights Watch, many others were left out as well:

Many people were also hurt in the lathi-charge, but they got no money either. One person's head was split open, and one person went blind from a bullet fragment. They got nothing. No money for them, no job for them. [Only] the people whose family member died or who were shot got money and a job.159

At the time of the interview, Milind was studying in the tenth grade and was still looking for employment.

National and International Standards on the Use of Firearms

The indiscriminate use of lethal force against unarmed demonstrators contravenes key provisions of the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which inter alia states:

Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life ....

With respect to the policing of unlawful assemblies, Article 13 of the Basic Principles dictates that, "in the dispersal of unlawful assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not praticable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary." Article 14 adds that, "in the dispersal of violent assemblies, law enforcement officials may use firearms only when less dangerous means are not practicable and only to the minimum extent. Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms in such cases, except under conditions stipulated in principle 9." Principle 9 allows for the use of firearms in cases of self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury.

The Basic Principles also state that: "Governments shall ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law."160

Many of the steps taken by the Special Reserve Police were also in clear violation of the Bombay Police Manual provisions on riot control. Relevantprovisions and the police's defense before the Gundewar Commission of Inquiry are outlined below. According to Rule No. 59 of the manual:

It should be accepted as a cardinal principle that troops of armed police engaged in suppression of disorder should in no circumstances be brought into such close contact with a hostile mob which greatly outnumbers them as to lead to the risk of their being committed to hand-to-hand struggle. Apart from the danger of their being rushed or deprived of their arms, it is impossible in these circumstances to exercise adequate fire control and the effect of fire at such close quarters is, therefore, likely to be unnecessarily severe.

By its own admission, the state reserve police present at the scene brought itself into close contact with the crowd, fired shots in the air, and, according to several eyewitnesses and a fact-finding report, all but one person killed had bullet wounds above the waistline.161 Even assuming that there was a "riotous mob" in need of control, SRPF forces seemed to have reversed the conventional riot control protocol. Rather than proceeding from a lathi-charge to tear gas, firing in the air, and firing below the waist, they first fired above the waist, then administered tear gas, and on two occasions in the afternoon (at 2:00 p.m. and later at 4:00 p.m.), lathi-charged residents in their homes after beating down their doors.162 The lathi-charge included severe beatings of two women both of whom "bore the marks of lathi-charge on their hands and feet."163

In a statement of claim submitted on behalf of the police department to the Gundewar Commission of Inquiry, the police claimed that a total of fifty rounds were fired: four in the air and seven just north of the first firing.164 They did not account for the remaining thirty-nine rounds. Witnesses have challenged the police's claim that only fifty rounds were fired. As Khade explained: "They fired for fifteen minutes_ But ten people were killed and so many were injured. A fewpeople were shot two or three times. So how could it be that only fifty bullets were fired?"165

The police's statement claims that a mob had set a luxury bus on fire and had stoned several tankers, and that an explosion of those tankers was imminent. According to the police, Sub-Inspector Kadam ordered one of his officers to fire warning shots in the air and upon realizing that the warning shots had no effect on the crowd, he "ordered his rifle section to aim and fire at arsonists and rioteers."166 They claimed, however, that the firings had no effect on the "mob." During his deposition before the Gundewar Commission on February 18, 1998, Sub-Inspector Kadam admitted to ordering his subordinates to fire in the air, even though he was aware that the Police Manual prohibited such actions. When asked why he decided to ignore police procedures, Kadam replied that he had read in a newspaper that firing in the air was an effective way to disperse a mob.167

Rule No. 60 of the Bombay Police Manual, on the use of firearms in dispersing an unlawful assembly, instructs that whenever firing becomes "unavoidable to unruly mobs, it should be ensured that the aim is kept low and directed against the most threatening part of the crowd. Care should be taken not to fire upon persons separated from the crowd nor to fire over the heads of the crowd as thereby innocent persons may be injured. Under no circumstances, should firing in the air be resorted to as experience proves that this leads ultimately to greater loss of life." The rule goes on to state that "it is impossible to pick out and put out of action individual leaders of a mob" and that "ineffective fire against a really determined mob is likely to influence it further so that the attack will be pressed home and the police overwhelmed." Sub-Inspector Kadam disregarded explicit procedure and ordered his officers to "aim and fire at arsonists and rioteers." The police claimed that the situation was unavoidable and that Kadam's orders needed to be looked at "in light of the situation that [was] faced by the officers on the spot."168

Finally, in reference to medical aid during riots and disturbances, Rule 62 confers upon officers the obligation to "do the best they can do to provide medical aid to persons injured on such occasions and, when necessary to convey them to hospitals as quickly as possible." None of the bodies that were taken to the hospital that day were taken by the police. Moreover, anyone attempting to administer aidto the injured was immediately ordered to step away or face the same consequences.

An amateur video of the events was submitted by the police as documentation of the department's claim that the firing was necessary to control a mob on its way to setting gas tankers on fire. The video, the police claimed, "vividly depicts the incidents of arson, the black billowing clouds emanating from the rear of the LPG [liquefied petroleum gas] tankers, the northward movement of the police party and subsequent arrival of fire brigade and dousing of fire."169 The authenticity of the video, however, has been called into question. A human rights NGO that examined the video concluded that the tape was doctored. It pointed to the video's choppy editing and the presence of two different backgrounds for incidents that police claim took place at the same scene. Closer examination of the video, eyewitness reports, and NGO fact-finding missions all confirm that the burning of public property that the police use as justification for their actions at 7:00 a.m. in fact took place much later in the day at a site hundreds of meters away.

The Indian People's Human Rights Commission issued a scene-by-scene analysis of the two-minute video, exposing inconsistencies between shots.170 Background scenes in the video provide evidence of two separate locales: Ramabai Colony and Nalanda Nagar, which is located some 150 meters away from Ramabai and approximately 300 meters away from the agitation around the statue.171 Although a luxury bus was set on fire, this occurred at around 11:30 a.m., more than four hours after the Ramabai firing began. Moreover, according to eyewitnesses, two seemingly empty tankers were brought in by the police themselves and placed behind the burning bus in order to "hide their blunder" and to fabricate a defense to the firing.172

In its response to allegations received from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, the government of India put forward the same defense:

The gathering became violent and started damaging private and public property. It also tried to set fire to a LPG gas tanker. In order to discourage the mob from doing so (which otherwise would haveresulted in extensive damage to human life and property) and for self-defence, the Police resorted to a "Cane-Charge" and subsequently, having failed to control the mob, opened fire. Unfortunately, 10 persons died and 24 persons were injured in the firing. 8 police personnel were also injured.173

The government also asserted that allegations such as those received pertaining to caste "do not fall within the mandate" of the special rapporteur.

On August 7, 1998, the Gundewar Commission report was presented to the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party government.174 In December 1998 the report was tabled in the state legislative assembly. The commission held Sub-Inspector Kadam responsible for an "unjustified, unwarranted and indiscriminate firing which [took place] without warning." It further recommended that the government terminate his services. The Shiv Sena-BJP government accepted the report and declared that Kadam would be suspended.175 Many activists have protested the suspension and have demanded that Kadam be dismissed and charged with murder under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code.176 As of February 1999 he had not been charged. Given the police action and the resulting loss of life and injuries, it is incumbent upon the government of Maharashtra to prosecute officers responsible for the attack.

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Notes

135 Writing on a poster in Ramabai colony (translated from Marathi). The poster also included pictures and names of those killed during the police firing. 136 See Human Rights Watch/Children's Rights Project, Police Abuse and Killings of Street Children in India (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996). See also A. R. Desai, ed., Repression and Resistance in India (Delhi: Popular Prakashan Private, Ltd., 1990); A. R. Desai, Expanding Governmental Lawlessness and Organized Struggles (Delhi: Popular Prakashan Private, Ltd., 1991); and Indian People's Tribunal, "Forced Evictions - An Indian People's Tribunal Enquiry into the Brutal Demolitions of Pavement and Slum Dwellers' Homes," A report by Justice Hosbet Suresh, retired judge, Bombay High Court (Bombay: August 1995). 137 A fact-finding report by the National Alliance of People's Movements, a human rights NGO, explained the significance of the statue and the reaction brought on by its desecration: "To anyone who knows the symbolic importance of the Dr. Ambedkar statue for Dalit identity and the deep and ingrained relation the Dalits have with Dr. Ambedkar's ideology, to the role he and his leadership played in giving them self confidence and a place in human society–its socio-economic-political arena – the reaction (emotional) can be easily understood, justified, and rationalised." National Alliance of People's Movements, "A Report and Statement of Facts on the Incidents of Atrocity against Dalits in Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar, Mumbai (Bombay), on July 11, 1997," [no date]. 138 The Special Reserve Police Force (SRPF) is a branch of the police deployed in times of emergency for riot control. 139 Indian People's Human Rights Commission, "Gunning Down Dalits: Police firing at Ramabai Ambedkar Colony, Mumbai on 11th July 1997" (Bombay); Human Rights Watch interviews, Bombay, February 2, 1998. 140 "I had no tear gas shells, says SRPF sub-inspector," Times of India, July 20, 1997; "Govt. will not be dismissed despite pressure, feels CM," Times of India, July 16, 1997. 141 Indian People's Human Rights Commission, "Gunning Down Dalits...," p. 36. 142 "Dalit woman stripped and paraded naked, says IPHRC report," The Times of India (Bombay), November 1, 1997. 143 Ibid. 144 Ibid. 145 "Notification of Commission of Inquiry (Hon'ble Shri Justice S.D. Gundewar) into desecration of Dr. Ambedkar Statue, Violence, Police Firing on 11th July 1997 at Ghatkopar, Mumbai," Bombay, 1997. 146 The association represents scheduled-caste and scheduled-tribe employees of Air India, Indian Airlines, and the Hotel Corporation of India. 147 "Statement of Claim (Case)/Version on Behalf of Namdev Dam Ubale, Before the Commission of Inquiry (Hon'ble Shri Justice S.D. Gundewar) into Desecration of Dr. Ambedkar Statue Violence, Police Firing on 11th July, 1997 at Ghatkopar, Mumbai," Bombay, November 18, 1997, p. 12. 148 Human Rights Watch interview, Bombay, February 5, 1998. 149 Human Rights Watch interview with Monk Kashyap, Bombay, February 2, 1998. 150 Ibid. 151 Ibid. 152 Human Rights Watch interviews with Shridevi Giri and colony resident, Bombay, February 2, 1998. 153 Human Rights Watch interview, Bombay, February 2, 1998. 154 Human Rights Watch interview with colony resident present at police station, Bombay, February 2, 1998. 155 Human Rights Watch interviews with colony residents, Bombay, February 2, 1998. 156 Human Rights Watch interview with Milind, Bombay, February 2, 1998. 157 Ibid. 158 "'Drink your urine' police tell riot victim," Sunday Mid-Day, July 13, 1997. 159 Human Rights Watch interview, Bombay, February 2, 1998. 160 The Basic Principles were adopted by the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders on September 7, 1990. The United Nations General Assembly subsequently welcomed these principles in Resolution 45/121 and called on all governments to be guided by them. They constitute authoritative guidelines for the promulgation of national legislation regulating the use of force and firearms. 161 Air Corporation SC/ST Employees Association, "Memorandum of Report on Police Firing at Mata Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar, Ghatkopar, Mumbai," p. 8. 162 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bombay, February 2, 1998. 163 "Memorandum of Report on Police Firing...," p. 9. 164 "Statement of Claim (Case)/On Behalf of Police Department, Before the Hon'ble Commission of Inquiry in the Matter of Police Firing at Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar/Eastern Express Highway (Pantnagar Police Station on 11.7.97)," Bombay, October 24, 1997, p. 10. 165 Human Rights Watch interview, Bombay, February 2, 1998. 166 "Statement of Claim (Case)/On Behalf of Police Department," pp. 6-7. 167 "I gave orders to fire in air, admits Kadam," The Times of India, February 19, 1998. 168 "Statement of Claim (Case)/On Behalf of Police Department," p. 13. 169 Ibid., p. 9. 170 Indian People's Human Rights Commission, "Gunning Down Dalits...," Annexure IV. 171 "Memorandum of Report on Police Firing...," p. 9. 172 Ibid. 173 Government of India, "Response of the Government of India to allegations received from the Special Rapporteur on the Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance," June 19, 1998. The allegations were submitted by a coalition of NGOs based in India, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. 174 "Gundewar Commission report submitted," Express News Service, August 8, 1998. 175 "Row in Maharashtra Houses over panel reports," The Hindu, December 31, 1998; "Gundewar panel blames SI for firing," The Hindu, December 25, 1998. 176 "Dalits demand Kadam's dismissal," Times of India, January 1, 1999.

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[Courtesy: Human Rights Watch]