05/31/2010, 00.00
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Orissa: unacceptable police violence against demonstrators defending their land

On 15 May, police attacked peaceful villagers protesting against the expropriation of their land. A fact-finding team saw evidence of violence, calling for formal charges to be laid against police and an end to the expropriation.
New Delhi (AsiaNews) – A fact-finding team concluded that police attacked peaceful demonstrators on 15 May. The violence, inexplicable in a democratic state, left more than a hundred people injured. The team travelled to Orissa’s Jagatsinghpur District to investigate the incident that saw police attack residents and activists from the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), who were protesting a project that would see land now owned by local farmers expropriated for industrial development.

The high-profile team was headed by retired Bombay High Court judge, Justice H Suresh, and included veteran social activist Chitranjan Singh, Prof Kalpana Kannabiran, veteran public health official Dr Punyabrata Gun, senior journalist Bolan Gangopadhyay and human rights activist and journalist Harsh Dobhal.

During the investigation, the team met local authorities, representatives of political parties and social groups and visited some of the villages that would be affected by the POSCO project. It also met some of the people injured during the clashes with police.

It reached some early observations that would go into a final report.

The team found that the police attack on peaceful protestors on 15 May was totally uncalled for; such behaviour should have no place in a democratic country like India.

Police first opened fire with tear gas shells, then rubber bullets, and finally charged wielding lathi (cane) when the villagers refused to leave the site. Over a hundred people were injured in the police action, five critically.

Violating basic rules of criminal procedure, women protestors were handled by the male police officers.

In violation of international norms and standards on the treatment of the injured even during war times, the Orissa administration did not provide any medical help to the injured. Many of them stayed in their villages, without medical help, fearing they might be arrested if they left.

The team found that, unprovoked, police in Balituth set fire to businesses and homes belonging to people who were neither protesting nor opposed to the POSCO project. Some 15 shops and 16 houses were burnt down.

A number of villagers said that police set fire to the protest site as well as shops and houses. Ironically, police had previously filed a suit against anti-POSCO movement leader Abhay Sahu and others for arson and looting.

What is more, police filed false claims against about 800 people who protested against the project in a democratic and peaceful manner.

After travelling to the affected villages, the team found that most of the land set for expropriation is fertile, rare and rich in bio- and eco-diversity. For centuries, local villagers have depended on this land for survival. Displacing them would be an attack on their lives and livelihood. It would also have serious and irreversible impact on the fragile and unique ecology of the area.

For the team, the proposed land acquisition for POSCO is a violation of a number of constitutional rights. It noted that the villagers are determined to wage a protracted struggle and that they are not prepared to leave their land.

Finally, the fact-finding team called for the immediate withdrawal of suits against villagers and anti-POSCO movement leaders, the release of those arrested, the withdrawal of the police force from the area, an end to the practice of terrorising the local population, the free movement to and from the villages and the immediate withdrawal of the proposed POSCO project.

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