A major general, two colonels and four soldiers of the Indian Army have been sentenced to life imprisonment by a summary general court martial on Saturday. They were found guilty of conducting a fake encounter that led to the death of leaders of All Assam Students Union (AASU) in 1994.
The verdict was pronounced at the headquarters of 2 Infantry Mountain Division, based in Dinjan in Dibrugarh district of Assam. The judgement has to be confirmed by the Kolkata-based Eastern Army Command and army headquarters in New Delhi and this could take around three months.
The seven guilty are Major General AK Lal, Colonel Thomas Mathew, Colonel RS Sibiren, Dilip Singh, Jagdeo Singh, Albindar Singh and Shivendar Singh. The guilty can file an appeal against the sentence in the armed forces tribunal and Supreme Court.
AASU activists Prabin Sonowal, Pradip Dutta, Debajit Biswas, Akhil Sonowal and Bhaben Moran and four others were picked up by soldiers of the Punjab Regiment from different places in Tinsukia between February 17 and 19, 24 years ago after ULFA militants killed Rameswar Singh, the then general manager Assam Frontier Tea Limited at Talap Tea Estate.
The five AASU activists were killed on February 23 in the infamous Dangri fake encounter case. The CBI had lodged a case against the accused soldiers but the Army obtained permission from the High Court to try them under military law.
Lal has had a chequered career in the army. He was commanding the 3 Infantry Division in Leh when in September 2007 a woman officer accused him 'misbehaviour' and 'misconduct' when he tried to teach her yoga. He was immediately removed from his position and dismissed from service in December 2010. However, later his retirement benefits were restored by the armed forces tribunal.
The verdict comes at a time when around 750 officers and soldiers of the army have filed petitions in Supreme Court against dilution of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives armed forces special rights and immunity to carry out operations in areas like J&K and northeast.