Indian Rights Group Seeks Top Court Action on In-Custody Deaths

Akash Vashishtha
New Delhi
161220-IN-custodial-620.jpg Kashmiri mourners in Srinagar chant as they carry the body of Qaiser Hamid, 16, who died after alleged torture while in police custody, Nov. 5, 2016.

Updated 8:55 a.m ET 2016-12-21

A rights group in India said Tuesday it would appeal to the country’s highest court for an end to in-custody torture a day after Human Rights Watch reported that nearly 600 suspects had died during a six-year period while being held by Indian police.

In a 114-page report released Monday, the New York-based global rights watchdog said at least 591 custodial deaths had occurred between 2010 and 2015, mostly caused by torture inflicted by policemen to extract confessions.

Almost 100 people died in police custody in 2015, the report said, citing government data. In 67 of those cases, police either did not present the suspects before a judge within 24 hours of arrest, as required by law, or the suspects died within 24 hours of being arrested.

“We are in the process of taking this matter to the Supreme Court,” Ritu Kumar of the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), a New Delhi-based socio-legal organization, told BenarNews, adding that the Indian judiciary was partly to blame for the alarming rate of in-custody deaths.

“There are several court rulings that entitle a suspect the right to a lawyer at the time of arrest. Despite specific directions, this law is not implemented. Even when the suspect is presented before a magistrate, the magistrate doesn’t bother to ask if the suspect was physically tortured,” Kumar said.

In most cases, people belonging to lower socio-economic strata face torture at the hands of officers because “the police think they can get away with it as this group doesn’t have the means or support to challenge them,” Kumar said.

“We have asked for services from legal authorities of various (Indian) states to protect suspects from police torture, but there is hardly any willingness. Moving the Supreme Court is our last legal recourse,” she said.

‘The last time I saw my son …’

The HRW report – prepared after investigating 17 custodial deaths and more than 70 interviews of victims’ families, witnesses and legal experts – said only one policeman had been convicted in a case of in-custody death between 2010 and 2015.

Agnelo Valdaris, 25, a Maharashtra state native, died three days after his arrest on suspicion of theft in April 2014, the report said.

“The last time I saw my son was April 17, 2014. He was crying bitterly. He was telling, ‘daddy save me. They have been beating me the whole night. They will kill me.’ After that I did not see him. I only saw his dead body the very next day,” Leonard Valdaris, Agnelo’s father, told HRW.

The report said that “while Indian police typically blame deaths in custody on suicide, illness or natural causes, family members of victims frequently allege the deaths were the result of torture or other ill-treatment.”

Forms of torture, commonly referred to as “third degree” in Indian police lingo, include “severe beatings with boots and belts, sometimes suspending people from their wrists,” the HRW said, adding that autopsy reports it examined showed “injuries and hematomas consistent with blunt force trauma.”

Political pressure

While admitting that nearly 600 custodial deaths in six years was a “bad figure,” Sankar Sen, a retired senior police official, came out in defense of the police, saying that the high rate of custodial deaths was possibly caused by political pressure on the force to deliver results in a speedy manner.

“Police usually employ the third degree on suspects only to source material [evidence] that would be admissible in court. Police have to use those confessions to produce evidence of the same in court. At times, there is undue pressure on the police to secure results quickly. Police don’t take pleasure out of physically hurting people,” Sen, former head of investigations for the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), told BenarNews.

Deepak Ratan, inspector general of police in north India’s Uttar Pradesh state, said efforts were being made to ensure that suspects were not tortured in custody.

“This is a serious issue and proactive measures are being taken to tackle it. CCTVs (closed circuit television cameras) are being installed at police stations across the country to check such practices. And officers are regularly instructed to ensure that no one is detained without proper documentation. The situation should improve with these measures,” Ratan told BenarNews.

Meanwhile, officials with the two leading Indian political parties that were in power during the period researched by HRW commented on the report’s findings.

“Custodial deaths is a matter related to the police, and police are not controlled by the central government,” Bizay Sonkar Shastri, spokesman for India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which came to power in May 2014, told BenarNews.

The Indian National Congress party, which was in power before that, said it played its part to check custodial deaths and the current government must do the same.

“Congress had set up a human rights commission to see that custodial torture doesn’t happen. Now, only the government in power can take measures to prevent [them]. The government has to be extra considerate on the issue,” Congress party’s Shobha Oza told BenarNews.


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