Dying in Police Custody in India

Nearly 600 people died in police custody in India between 2010 and 2015, yet not one police official was convicted during this period. A report released by Human Rights Watch last week examines 17 cases in which families have sought accountability. Their stories reveal, in searing detail, why there have been so many deaths, starting with police contempt for proper procedures, a cavalier attitude toward the torture of detainees and near total impunity for wrongful deaths.

India’s National Human Rights Commission and courts have laid down detailed procedures for how police officers should handle arrests, including identifying themselves at the time of arrest, recording the date and time of arrest and informing next of kin. Police rules require a medical examination upon arrest to establish existing injuries so that any injuries from torture can be documented, and for every person taken into custody to appear before a magistrate within 24 hours. When custodial deaths occur, the police need to file a First Information Report and initiate an investigation, and an autopsy is to be performed and filmed.

These procedures are too often ignored: In nearly 70 percent of deaths in police custody in India in 2015, the victim had not seen a magistrate within the mandatory 24-hour period or had died within 24 hours.

Enforcing existing laws and procedures would help. But independent investigations into custodial deaths are also needed. The police effectively investigate themselves now. Families seeking justice for wrongful deaths need protection, and police officers must know they will face prosecution and punishment for torture and wrongful deaths.

Moreover, as Maja Daruwala of the New Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative observes, India’s police must “decide whether shielding bad policing, illegal policing and what amounts to murder is of value to their efficiency.” It is the job of the Union Home Ministry and the relevant state ministries to ensure that officers understand that these shocking practices are not only ineffective, but also undermine public faith in law enforcement and do terrible damage to one of the critical pillars of India’s democracy: the rule of law.

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