DNA testing to identify Kashmir's 'disappeared'

Hope for relatives of the 70,000 victims of the disputed region's troubled past

Unidentified remains discovered in unmarked graves scattered across Kashmir could undergo DNA testing in an effort to provide crucial information about an unknown number of "disappeared" people who went missing during the valley's years of violence.

The state's most senior politician has said he is prepared to carry out tests where family members are willing to provide a DNA sample of their own and help identify where they believed their relative might be buried.

"We would be prepared to consider DNA testing provided the people come forward with a sample," Kashmir's Chief Minister Omar Abdullah told The Independent. He said he also wanted to push forward with the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission for the region.

In an unsettling reminder of the untold numbers of "disappeared" who were killed or went missing during the region's dark recent history, officials announced last month that a total of 2,156 remains had been located in 38 different grave sites. Other sites have also been identified and more corpses could yet be identified.

The State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) called for "all modern" techniques and methods to be used to identify the bodies, including the use of DNA. Its chairman, Justice Syed Bashiruddin said: "It is not just DNA tests, there are other tests [that can be used]. We have to try to identify all these nameless graves." There is no agreed figure for the number of people who lost their lives as a result of separatist militancy that took hold in the valley in the late 1980s and the subsequent crackdown by the Indian security forces. Anywhere up to 70,000 people may have died, while many thousands of Kashmiri Hindus, or Pandits, were forced from homes they had occupied for centuries.

Activists say large numbers of people, suspected of either being militants or having linked to such groups, were summarily detained and killed. Across the valley, untold numbers live in a state of enduring uncertainty, hoping that missing relatives may one day come home alive.

Among those actively watching progress on identifying the remains is 23-year-old Bilqis Manzoor. Ten years ago her father, Manzoor Ahmed, was picked up by counter-insurgency troops from the 35th Battalion the Rashtriya Rifles from his home near Srinagar's old airport. Mr Manzoor, who ran a chemist's shop and also worked as a distributor for fruit juices and snacks, was 32 and had four children. Apparently the soldiers gave no explanation as to why they were taking him. His family never saw him again. "DNA testing is a moral victory for us. For all these years, the state was in denial about the missing persons," she said, speaking from Srinagar. "Now, it shows that the government is willing to accept that people are missing... and DNA tests of the bodies in unmarked graves would prove the untold brutalities unleashed by Indian security forces and gross human rights violation in Kashmir."

Two years ago, the International People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir issued a report that identified at least 2,943 bodies, located in unmarked graves in 55 towns and villages. It is this information that has been used by the SHRC for its own inquiry. Khurram Parvez, a human rights activist with the group, said up to 8,000 relatives are waiting for news.

Mr Abdullah's call for a commission has been derided as a "farce" by some activists who say that there can be no justice for the people of Kashmir if those responsible for crimes are not charged and tried. Campaigners have long demanded the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Kashmir, saying the law prevents troops and paramilitaries being held accountable, even if there is evidence they have committed offences.

Chief Minister Abdullah said that, while the formula for a commission had not been fixed, the process had to be transparent. "We say that no one would be able to claim immunity from the process," he added. "The truth and reconciliation commission would have to recognise you don't give people immunity and that justice is seen to be done."

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