Published in The Hindu on Jan 02 ::
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director, Human Rights Watch, throws light on custodial torture
In-custody torture, though illegal under law, is often resorted too, worldwide, making it one of worst forms of human rights violations. Meenakshi Ganguly, former Time journalist and now, South Asia director, Human Rights Watch, takes up a few questions here to address the subject. Excerpts:
Do you think India should also come out with an official report documenting in-custody torture as the U.S. Senate recently did on CIA’s secret torture program?
Torture and other ill-treatment are absolutely forbidden under universally applicable international laws. Most that defend torture argue, as was done by the CIA, that harsh methods are necessary when there is great danger to public security. They speak of the ‘ticking bomb.’ In fact, any experienced interrogator would agree that using torture is not effective because it can produce inaccurate intelligence or generate false leads. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program shows that not only was the CIA torture far more brutal and harsh than previously admitted, it was not an effective means of producing valuable or useful intelligence. Repeated claims that the program was necessary to protect Americans turned out to be false.
India has prepared a draft bill seeking to prohibit torture. But as long as there is a culture of impunity, where public officials are protected from prosecution, the law will fail.
Some argue that our judiciary already has enough checks and balances to protect prisoners from abuse. Do you agree with it?
Indian law does not allow confessions to the police as evidence because there is concern that such confessions might be coerced. Under POTA, confessions to the police were permitted, and eventually the law was repealed because it was abused.
Although most police will argue that “third degree” is generally discouraged, in our discussions with the police we also found that it is the most used instrument in their non-existent toolkit. Overworked, where good work is seldom rewarded, junior level staff is expected to produce prompt results — and they do so by rounding up suspects and beating them, hoping to solve the case. Inevitably, they end up with false leads, often make wrong arrests and are unable to secure convictions due to lack of evidence. Poor witness protection and harassment to witnesses also means that they do not want to get involved in a long drawn out trial.
The senior officer level police complain of undue pressure from politicians and powerful figures, who can act as patrons to criminals, demanding they be protected from arrest and prosecution. Instead of upholding the law, it is the police that end up breaking it. The Supreme Court has ruled that the government must engage in police reform. This is crucial to ensure that police in India becomes an effective and accountable force. The judiciary rightly acquits people for lack of evidence. But if police does not receive the training to gather proper evidence, it also means that criminals can get away, while innocents suffer wrongful Muslim, calling me a traitor arrests, torture, and lengthy under trial detention. It also leads to an even more frightening outcome — where the police do not have evidence to convict, they decide to be both judge and executioner, doling out punishment that can range from slaps to extrajudicial killings, or fake encounters.
What vital points does HRW’s in-custody torture report of 2011 throw up?
We found that there is urgent need to implement reforms to the criminal justice system. The police in India operates as it did under colonial rule. We found that fear of police is a barrier to seeking justice. Women and children, victims of sexual attacks, said they feared further abuse if they did venture into a police station. Dalits complain that if they muster the courage to complain, they often find that the victims are made to sit on the floor outside while the upper caste perpetrators are served tea by the officer. Muslims complain of being held in suspicion.
The constabulary and the police station is often the only State presence available to the public, and it is not a pleasant experience. Many policemen agreed that they are often rude and harsh, but they also point to their own frustration, having to deal with a range of issues from domestic violence to communal riots, often because the civil administration simply fails to do its part inimplementing policy. We found police stations with desktop computers, but no electricity or even a trained operator, forget access to data and information. At some places, the residential quarters were shocking. Policemen said they are accused of demanding money when they have to travel a distance in rural areas to investigate a complaint, but said there was a shortage of vehicles or funds to pay for fuel. On the other hand, we found that many State governments are yet to establish independent and effective human rights commissions or set up a complaints authority to investigate police abuse.
Don’t we have guidelines to prevent custodial torture?
The Supreme Court and the NHRC have laid down guidelines. Unfortunately, they are routinely ignored. That is why there is such a strong demand to seek the repeal of AFSPA to be replaced by one that has stronger human rights protections. The law provides widespread powers, but protects soldiers when those powers are abused.
In the investigation of terror attacks, police have made mistakes, often due to the use of torture. The Andhra Pradesh Minorities Rights Commission, for instance, found the wrongful use of torture and recommended compensations. In one case in Orissa, we had a man tell us that he was beaten by the police so severely, his leg was fractured. In agony, when the police continued to hit his injured leg, he blurted out the names of his office colleagues, who were then arrested and tortured. All of them were charged under the counter terror laws as members of the banned Maoist groups. Eventually, they were found to be innocent by the courts.
India is yet to sign the UN Convention Against Torture. Will it help?
Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had even permitted UN special rapporteurs on torture to visit their countries but reports of in-custody torture continue to pour in from such countries. Police often say that human rights impose restrictions when tough measures are needed for tough challenges. Unfortunately, any compromise is only going to lead to bad outcomes.When the State allows, even rewards, its security forces to violate the fundamental principles of the Constitution, it rarely turns out well. It leads to corruption at the very least. It can also turn policemen into killers for hire, or as a military court discovered recently, lead soldiers to kill innocents for profit.
In Sri Lanka, we have documented torture including sexual abuse of suspected LTTE supporters and sympathisers. In Bangladesh, the Rapid Action Battalion was created as a counter-terror force, but instead has repeatedly been accused of extrajudicial executions. People want to feel safe. However, we often find that denial of rights can cause security challenges, but the continued violation of human rights aggravates the situation, leading to a cycle of violence and placing innocents at risk.