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Custody death glare on India

New Delhi, Aug. 5: Four people died in confinement in India every day on average over the past five years, an Asian rights report has said, turning the spotlight on the country’s rising custodial deaths.

The chilling claim by the Asian Centre for Human Rights has come with the lament that the culprits, mostly policemen and jail officials, are rarely convicted.

The centre’s report, titled Torture in India 2008: A State of Denial, puts the number of such deaths at 7,468 and says as many people, if not more, have been killed in the custody of the army and paramilitary forces in insurgency-hit areas. Most of these deaths were a result of torture, it adds.

It cites the case of Geeta Devi, among the report’s many examples, who drank poison at home on May 21, 2007, a day after being allegedly tortured in a Madhya Pradesh police station. The 30-year-old had been detained in Chhattarpur over a bike theft and released the same night.

According to centre director Suhas Chakma, in instances like Geeta’s, there rarely is direct evidence of police torture or custodial death, helping the culprits get away.

The figures seem to bear this out: in the cases listed in the report, only four police personnel were convicted in 2004, three in 2005 and 20 in 2007. Others are in appeal.

“In the last 13 years, only in 684 cases of custodial violence has the National Human Rights Commission awarded compensation, though 99 per cent of such deaths are a consequence of torture. There is a law on physical torture but it isn’t specific about other forms, like psychological torture, which lead to suicides in custody.”

Chakma points to another disturbing trend: families of victims are reluctant to file complaints sometimes, something he blames “immense police pressure”.

Union home minister Shivraj Patil told Parliament this March that custodial deaths resulted from “illness/natural death, escaping from custody, suicides, attacks by other criminals, riots, accidents and death during hospitalisation”.

Among the redeeming cases mentioned in the centre’s report is the life term awarded to two Bikaner jail officials and two inmates over the death of a prisoner in custody.

Jail superintendent Om Prakash Chavadia, jailer Ram Kumar Jat and the two prisoners were punished for the death of Lakhvinder Singh on June 17, 1993. But the convictions by a Bikaner fast-track court came on June 23, 2007 — 14 years after the man was allegedly killed.

Chakma also blames the legal system that makes prior permission mandatory — under the CrPC and Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 — for the prosecution of the accused law-keepers. He suggests the formalities breed a sense of impunity among police and lead to more custodial abuses.

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