A probing eye

SC makes CCTVs and audio recordings must at interrogation rooms in police stations, agencies and jails to curb custodial excesses

Finally, a process has been set in motion to hold the police to account for custodial excesses and crossing the line. In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court has made it mandatory for all police stations and probe agencies — the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) — to install CCTV cameras with night vision and audio recording facilities. States, too, have to deploy cameras with audio at all police stations. The court has even detailed the placement of such tracking devices at interrogation rooms, lock-ups, entries and exits, lobbies, offices of the inspector/sub-inspector and even outside washrooms lest officials find a way of hoodwinking technology. The video and audio recordings have to be preserved for 18 months for evidence and an independent panel can periodically source them to assess claims of human rights violations. After this overarching ruling, the police will undoubtedly find it difficult to justify brute practices in the guise of extracting vital information or cover up inconvenient truths under political pressure. The ruling assumes significance following the brutal custody death of two men in Tamil Nadu that had outraged our collective conscience and given us our own #lives matter moment. A father and son in Tuticorin, who were booked for running their shop 15 minutes beyond closure during a lockdown — a minor infraction by any stretch — ended up dead after the local police subjected them to a long, brutal and sustained interrogation, torture and sexual abuse in custody. Fifty nine-year-old P Jayaraj and his son, 31-year-old J Fenix, were booked under Section 188 of IPC (Disobeying the time restrictions ordered by a public servant, Section 383 (Extortion by threat) and Section 506 (Criminal intimidation). However, disobeying Section 188 is not so serious an offence that requires sustained questioning and night-long torture in custody. Apart from that, there were no witnesses to back up the need for the police to book the two men under Section 383 and Section 506. But witnesses living 500 metres away from the police station, where the two men were held, did hear their screams and cries for help through the night. The next day, when the men were released from custody, their clothes were found ripped and they were bleeding profusely from their private parts, forcing them to change their clothes at least 10-12 times in a few hours. Yet, they were a given a clean bill of health by the doctor on duty who obviously did not want to incur the wrath of the all-powerful inspector. And then they died within hours for lack of critical care. This incident showed how common custodial deaths had become, particularly at the local levels of administration where the policing system had internalised the right to be judge, jury and executioner.

According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) data, compiled over a decade till March 2020, 17,146 people were reported to have died in judicial and police custody, which is about five a day. The rights panel listed 914 deaths in custody, 53 of these under police watch alone, this year despite the long months of lockdown. Besides, there have been far too many reports of Dalits, the poor and the marginalised being at the receiving end of the police’s wrath lest they expose the ugly face of upper caste atrocities. Police torture has become routine simply because no errant officer has been booked since 2005. And considering that conviction in case of custodial torture is difficult because Government permission is required to prosecute public officials, who defend themselves saying they were just using a coercive tactic while discharging their official duties, there’s little hope for redress. Besides, there’s still no law against custodial excesses. Torture may have begun as a tested medieval ploy to get information out of suspects but has now become an intimidatory tactic by police who use it to settle scores, either on their own or at the behest of their political bosses, and close a case file according to a presumed, often pre-judged, course of events. The lack of policing reforms has meant that the forces are not trained in more modern and digitally-aided methods of interrogation and cross-examination that could do away with traditional methods of conducting an inquiry altogether. Besides, most deaths are attributable to the extended periodicity of custody. As the NHRC data shows, 92 per cent of the deaths were in judicial custody, which can extend up to 60 or 90 days. A person may be held in police custody for 24 hours but that can be extended to 15 days on the orders of a magistrate. Besides, not every custody death is reported though mandatory and “failure to report” is still not a crime. Over the last few years, rarely have errant cops been held accountable for overreaching their powers, especially in cases with a decidedly communal tilt, like those involving protesters against the new citizenship law. In the Mumbai of the 80s and even later, “encounter specialists” were treated as heroes of the forces for delivering instant justice and were even endorsed by civil society. Of course, the brutality during the lockdown isn’t the only example worth noting. The visuals of the ferocious crackdown on dissenting students of Jamia and Aligarh Muslim University during the anti-CAA row haunt thousands of families even today as we wait for those responsible to be held accountable for the heinous misuse of power against peaceful demonstrators. And while the cases drag on in courts, the offenders would never be put on trial or would have been moved out of the public eye to other posts. Simply because the police has been reduced to being a malleable tool of the powers that be and is increasingly being used to serve their political will and agenda. At least, the Supreme Court has decided the police can be policed, too, when required.

Source: The PIoneer

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