Kashmiri student tells of torture: Tim McGirk in Srinagar reports on the increasing evidence of Indian army brutality against the Muslim insurgency

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WHILE Indian soldiers search a neighbourhood in Srinagar's old city for guns and fugitive Kashmiri guerrillas, the men and boys are herded out to an open square and kept there, hungry and thirsty, from morning until sunset reddens the surrounding Himalayan peaks.

Then the ominous 'ID parade' begins. The men and boys, some as young as 10, are shoved forward, one by one, to be identified by masked informers. Those singled out are hauled away by the soldiers and, all too often, are found the next morning, tortured and killed.

The security forces then claim they were killed in 'crossfire', or fell victim to 'inter-gang clashes' between the five main factions who want freedom from India. But, according to Mufti Farooqi, a leading human rights activist, more than 80 Kashmiris died last month in custody, despite assurances by the Indian government that it is trying to stop such murders. 'The officials say they've punished some people for these atrocities. But they've never said who conducted the inquiry, what paramilitary units were involved - nothing,' Mr Farooqi says. 'There's no proof.'

Privately, Kashmiri police admit that a 'catch and kill' policy is being carried out by the Indian security forces who, after three years, have failed to crush a growing insurgency movement among Kashmiri Muslims in this disputed northwestern Himalayan state. Mr Farooqi claims there is now one policeman or soldier for every seven Kashmiris. More than 3,500 civilians have been killed and 20,000 arrested since January 1990, when this beautiful valley of mountain lakes erupted into open revolt. The Kashmiri guerrillas are split between those who want to unite with neighbouring Muslim Pakistan and those who want independence.

Even the state's predominantly Muslim police force is not spared the brutality. More than 3,000 armed Kashmiri officers stormed the police headquarters on 23 April and held their chief hostage for several hours. They were protesting against the death of a constable who died in army custody. One senior Kashmiri official, a Muslim, who declined to be identified, said wearily: 'Yes, they're killing them. Maybe it's because the jails are full - or they want to frighten the people. We try going by the rules, but nobody else is.'

Testimony of these custodial deaths comes from a 19-year-old student, Masroof Sultan, picked out on 8 April in an ID parade. He was beaten, given electric shocks and then tied to a tree where his uniformed executioners shot him 12 times. Miraculously, he survived. Lying in hospital after undergoing four operations and a transfusion of 13 pints of blood, Mr Sultan does not know why he was picked. It might have been because he was a young Muslim with a beard. Or, because one of the soldiers fancied his woollen jumper.

He was pulled off a bus by members of the Border Security Force (BSF), a paramilitary outfit patrolling the Kashmiri capital. He was punched by four soldiers, then blindfolded and taken to an interrogation centre. There he was stripped naked and beaten so severely that his ribs were broken and his right leg was fractured. 'They kept saying: 'Admit you're a militant. Give us your guns.' I kept telling them I was innocent.'

That evening, as he was being taken away, a guard lifted the expensive jumper wrapped around his head - just long enough for him to see his mother weeping outside the security post. 'Take a look at your mother,' the soldier said. 'It's the last time you'll see her.'

He was taken to a cell inside Papa II, a secluded camp on the former maharajah of Kashmir's estate. Still naked, he was splashed with cold water. One metal ring was put around his penis, and two others banded his toes. 'They'd hold live, electric wires against these rings, touching them, tick-tick, like that, for two or three seconds, until blood started coming from my nose and I began losing all senses,' he said.

'After that, two men dragged me like a dead body and dumped me in the jeep. About seven soldiers climbed in. His captors propped him against a tree along a deserted flood channel. 'I could hear the men cocking their guns. Then the officer said: 'One-two-three . . . and all together they fired. I was lifted into the air and fell sideways. I began crawling, so the officer told a soldier to shoot me in the heart. Twice he shot - and all my breath was going. Then the soldier kicked me in the head and said: 'He's alive, sir.' I heard the officer reply: 'Shoot him in the head.'

'He took two more shots. Missed the first one and then got me in the neck. Then he stole my jumper and left. The full moon was in my eyes, and I was so thirsty. There was dirty water down in the flood canal, and I wanted to crawl down, but I couldn't understand why nothing worked. My legs, my arms, nothing.'

Mr Sultan was rescued by Kashmiri police who had been told by the BSF to collect the body of yet another crossfire victim. They found him alive and, without telling the soldiers, rushed him to hospital.

Human rights activists and Kashmiri police claim that Mr Sultan's tale is commonplace. What is remarkable is that he survived to tell it. Indian authorities in Srinagar were informed of Mr Sultan's torture but, as yet, no action has been taken against the officers involved. Mr Sultan will be crippled for life.

Britain and the United States have expressed concern over alleged human rights violations in Kashmir, but India so far has shrugged off outside interference. Amnesty International and other human rights organisations have also been banned by the Indian authorities from visiting Kashmir.

Tomorrow: India's dilemma

(Photograph omitted)