Death in Custody: act now to stop custodial deaths

Death in Custody: act now to stop custodial deaths

A case of police brutality in Sangli, a district of 2.8 million people in the well-connected  Western Maharashtra  region, should send alarm bells among every responsible member of the Indian police and state administrations, particularly  Maharashtra, where the incident took place. Aniket Kothale, a 25-year-old worker in a local shop, was tortured and killed and his half-burnt body dumped by policemen in the distant hills some 200 km away from the crime spot.  

Kothale's arrest was itself part of an elaborate frame-up by a sub-inspector named Yuvraj Kamte, who had charge of the Sangli police station. The accused died in police custody, after which Kamte arranged to burn and dispose the body. He then claimed that the accused had fled from custody. Kamte and four other policemen have since been arrested and dismissed from service while the Superintendent of Police and the Deputy Superintendent, a lady, have been transferred.

The series of violations in the case mock our procedures. Whenever there is a death in police custody, the police officers concerned are duty-bound to bring it to the notice of senior officers expeditiously. After a postmortem by a competent government medical officer to ascertain the cause of death, the Superintendent of Police is required to send details to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) within 24 hours. The  Maharashtra  government has further mandated that every incident of custodial death be investigated by CID Crime, besides an inquest by the concerned sub-divisional magistrate.

In view of the perception that custodial deaths take place because of reckless incidents of arrest, amendments have been effected to the Criminal Procedure Code, stating that arrests be made only for offences that attract punishment of more than seven years in prison or in those offences where there is apprehension that the accused may commit similar offences or assist other accused to escape. As soon as the accused is arrested, he should be medically examined and necessary medical assistance should be provided. Information about the arrest should be communicated to his advocate and relatives/family members. Details of his arrest need to be conveyed to the police control room and displayed on the unit website. In addition, following directives from the Supreme Court, a State Police Complaints Authority has been formulated under the chairmanship of a retired high court judge to look into grievances in this regard. All complaints about custodial deaths are also looked into minutely by NHRC and SHRC.  

Highhanded 'Heroes'

Though all these directives are being emphasised and publicised, it is a matter of concern that these are not implemented at the ground level. Once one gets a job in the police department and wears the uniform, there is a misconception that it is a blanket approval to arrest anyone and obtain a confession by indulging in physical harassment. Several times, suspecting someone for petty theft or because of personal rivalry, complaints are registered by people of means, and this is followed by arrest and torture.  

If the police officer does not do so, he is declared a good-for-nothing. Many a time, a police officer who indulges in beating a citizen in public and violates all norms is appreciated by people and he is considered a hero. Kamte was working as officer-in-charge of detecting crimes in Sangli police station for the last three years, and had reportedly detected several offences using high-handed tactics and was applauded by the public. This must have led him to believe he is beyond any law.

The NHRC and SHRC have clarified more than once that unless a person has gone to a police station to lodge a complaint, whether he is in the lockup or outside, he would be treated as under arrest and it is the responsibility of the officer in charge of the police station to take care of his health. The study of custodial deaths reveals that more than 65% are attributed to suicide, about 25% to mental shock and less than 5% to police harassment. These are official statistics and they tell us that we need a whole range of steps – from safety measures to psychological inputs and an array of methods and systems to keep a check on these violations and create a culture of fair and proper investigations.

Following observations by the Bombay High Court, almost all police stations and police lock-ups in  Maharashtra  have been provided with CCTV cameras. However, as noticed in the incident at Sangli, either these cameras are rendered dysfunctional. It is therefore imperative that these CCTV cameras along with the provision of audio recording are IP-based, with adequate internet-based support. The facility for monitoring these should be given to the CID for impartiality. All footage needs to be preserved.

Police officers and men should be exposed to scientific investigation techniques frequently. They need to be trained in the use of computers, digital technology, assessment of health conditions and brain mapping techniques at various levels. Often, police interrogation takes place in a side room or behind the police station. Instead, there should be well-equipped interrogation rooms in every police station and it should be mandatory to use only this interrogation room by trained police officers. As directed by the Supreme Court, officers doing investigation should be separate and not be used for routine duties. Investigation is an advanced science, and physical harassment to obtain confessions is illegal, archaic and needs to be discouraged at all levels.  

The time is now ripe for the Indian government to consider ratifying the international treaty against torture and declare our commitment to human dignity.  

(The writer is a former Director General of Police,  Maharashtra)

(Sydicate: The Billion Press)

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