India Prime Minister Modi faces Houston federal lawsuit for alleged human rights abuses in Kashmir

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Gabrielle Banks Sep. 19, 2019

1of2Demonstrators hold an effigy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an anti-India protest rally in Karachi on August 25, 2019, in solidarity with India-administered Kashmiri. – The nuclear-armed neighbours regularly target each other with mortar shells and gunfire on the de facto border known as the Line of Control (LoC) in the Photo: RIZWAN TABASSUM, Contributor / AFP/Getty Images
2of2President Donald Trump meets with Prime Minster Narendra Modi of India at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. Modi declined Trump’s offer to mediate India’s dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)Photo: ERIN SCHAFF, STF / NYT

A pair of Kashmiri citizens sued the prime minister of India in federal court Thursday ahead of his much-anticipated arrival in Houston, alleging that his unilateral annexation Aug. 5 of their homeland caused the detention, disappearance and deaths of their loved ones amid ongoing repression.

The region, in the foothills of the Himalayas, has been a subject of fevered dispute between India and Pakistan since partition in 1947. In August, Modi withdrew Kashmir’s special status, a radical shift that intensified conflict in the Muslim-majority state and heightened tensions with Pakistan. The group behind the lawsuit says the annexation violated international law.

During the G7 Summit, Modi declined President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate a settlement between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir region. Some in the international human rights community have criticized Trump’s silence about the Kashmir upheaval as well as the president’s plan to glad hand with him in NRG Stadium in Houston.

Human rights protesters are expected to gather outside the stadium in great numbers for a counter-event of their own.

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The 73-page lawsuit alleges Modi; his minister of home affairs, Amit Shah; and commander of the Indian army, Lt. General Kanwal Jeet Singh Dhillon, carried out extrajudicial killings, committed wrongful death, battery, emotional distress, crimes against humanity and inflicted “cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment” upon Kashmiris during the military exercise. They say Modi and his henchmen have created a public nuisance and are guilty of negligence by not preventing the “deliberate, willful, wanton, malicious, intentional and/or oppressive” killings of Muslims in the regions of Jamuu and Kashmir.

A number of Kashmiris have been killed since the crackdown and many have unable to get medical attention, according to news reports. Indian officials have enforced a curfew, cut off communication and access to necessities, according to reports.

The civil complaint accuses the Indian head of state of human rights violations under the The Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, a federal statute that allows civil suits on U.S. soil against foreign officials suspected of committing torture or extrajudicial killing.

The act was first used the following year by Sister Dianna Ortiz, who sued a the defense minister of Guatemala, Hector Gramajo for her abduction, rape, and torture by military forces. A federal court in Massachusetts awarded her $5 million in damages.

The two unnamed litigants in the Modi lawsuit are U.S. based Kashmiris. Their New York attorney, from an organization called the Kashmir Khalistan Referendum Front, plans to submit the case as a class action.

“We want to hold a human rights violator like Modi accountable,” said Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, whose group is focused on a right to self determination campaign for the state of Punjab. Since the annexation this summer the campaign has been advocating on behalf of the people of Kashmir.

“He can only escape if he has been granted immunity by the U.S. Department of State,” Pannu said. “Otherwise, the facts and the law are on the side of the victim.”

Pannu said Modi and the two other officials do not enjoy an automatic immunity. The U.S. State Department typically intervenes in such cases to ask the judge to grant officials immunity from civil lawsuits.

RELATED: With ‘Howdy, Modi!’ Houston’s Indian community says hello to the world

Pannu said he is working with process servers to deliver Modi the court summons before he leaves the “Howdy Modi” event at NRG Stadium on Sunday. If that doesn’t work Pannu’s team will try again in New York when Modi visits an awards ceremony at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or during his scheduled visit to see statutes of Mahatma Gandhi.

Gabrielle Banks covers federal court for the Houston Chronicle. Follow her on Twitter and send her tips at gabrielle.banks@chron.com. gabrielle.banks@chron.com

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Gabrielle Banks

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Gabrielle Banks covers federal court for the Houston Chronicle. She has been a criminal justice and legal affairs reporter for nearly two decades, including staff work at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Los Angeles Times, and freelance work for The New York Times, The Mercury News, Newsday and The Miami Herald. She has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University. Before her years as a reporter, she worked as a teacher, social worker and organizer.

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The article appeared in the https://www.houstonchronicle.com on 19 September 2019

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