INDIA: Fatal investigations 

The suicide of police officer, P G Haridath, on 15 March 2012 brings again to the limelight, issues that adversely affect criminal investigations in India. Haridath was an Additional Superintendent of Police working in the Central Bureau of Investigation. It is reported that the deceased officer was investigating the infamous Sampath murder case in Kerala state in which senior police officers are cited as the accused.

It is reported that a suicide note, allegedly obtained from the room in which the officer’s body was found, mentions the name of officers stationed at the CBI office in Thiruvanandapuram, that of a former Chief Judicial Magistrate and of a lawyer, as those responsible for the officer’s death. Mr. Vijay Sakhare, a senior police officer who is named as the 15th accused in the custodial murder case investigated by the deceased officer, had in the recent past approached the Kerala High Court seeking the court’s intervention to remove references to Sakhare in the case, which the court had refused.

It is alleged that Mr. Mohammad Yasin, the Thrissur Police Range Inspector General at the time of Sampath’s death is one of the persons responsible for brutally torturing Sampath that resulted in his immediate death. Yasin is the 16th accused in the CBI case. These senior police officers are not even suspended from active service.

The state police had arrested Sampath in connection with Crime 246/2010 from Gounderpalayam at Coimbatore in Tamilnadu state on 28 March 2010. The police brought Sampath to Kerala after the arrest. Sampath was accused of theft and the murder of a woman named Sheela, the wife of a prominent businessperson in Kerala and seriously injuring her mother, Karthiyayini. It is alleged that the police officers brutally tortured Sampath and the other co-accused in the case at a remote riverside cottage in a place called Malampuzha of Palakkad district, in Kerala.

It is suspected that Sampath died due to the injuries he suffered from brutal torture that the police inflicted upon him, allegedly to extract a confession. The post-mortem examination revealed that Sampath had suffered 63 anti-mortem injuries and that death was due to internal bleeding and blunt trauma brain injuries. The police till today have failed to explain how Sampath suffered these injuries.

Logically it is beyond doubt that the police had a role to play in Sampath’s death. To what extent, which officer is involved in the murder and for what reason is for an independent agency to investigate and a court to adjudicate. It is reported that deceased Sheela and her husband had close connections with the then state home minister in Kerala, Mr. Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, who had reportedly misused his authority to force the police complete the investigation of the case in haste. It is also alleged that Sheela’s husband is also well connected to high-ranking police officers.

Immediately after Sampath’s death the state police worked overtime to protect officers allegedly involved in the custodial death. The manipulated records at Palakkad North Police Station where a case under section 174 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 registered as Crime 251/2010 is the result of this. Sampath’s younger brother filed a writ petition in the High Court in which the court transferred the case to the CBI for investigation. In more than two occasions courts have questioned why the CBI is unable to arrest the police officers suspected for the murder. It is at this juncture the investigating officer, accusing his colleagues and other officers of illegally interfering with investigation, has chosen to end his life. The accusations by the officer against his own colleagues are serious and must be investigated.

The so-called ‘ultimate criminal investigation agency’ in the country, the CBI, itself is not immune to political and otherwise corrupt pressure is not a new concern. There are a series of instances where the CBI has been accused of manipulating investigation to fit illegal demands of power centres, including those from political parties. The CBI also houses officers received on transfer from the state police, a factor that cuts the root of independency of this agency.

That apart, the primary question concerning the entire affair is, what is criminal investigation in India? That a suspect tortured by the investigating agency is nothing new. Extraction of confession by use of force is often considered a legitimate investigative procedure in the country. In most cases investigation of a crime begins and ends with a confession. Sampath’s case indicates the two prevalent trends in India that in cases involving powerful persons, the police could be easily influenced by local power structures, which puts into action senior police officers that willingly investigate cases to please these power pockets. And, even for them, scientific investigation of crimes is not an option so that they resort to custodial torture.

Bringing a suspect to a remote place for questioning is a practice that the police follow routinely. Such illegal detention houses where suspects are brought, tortured and taken back exists throughout the country. For instance in Kerala, one such place exists in Thiruvanandapuram district – also the state capital – at a place called Neyyatinkara. This was video documented by the media and there was no response from the administration.

Such places exist in other parts of the state, which could be either a rented house in a remote location or a government guesthouse away from the public attention. That such illegal interrogation houses exist in every part of the country is a documented, and shocking reality. Despite the fact that in Kerala, a similar incident – destruction of evidence and subsequent exposure – had brought down the then state administration as early as in 1977, the practice still continues, highlights the reality that criminal investigation is synonymous to torture in India.

Even as of today the country does not have a policy of zero tolerance to custodial torture. Police officers complain that they do not know what criminal investigation is other than extracting confession by force. So much so, the practice of torture is accepted as legitimate police procedure. The appalling nature of criminal trials that lack proper evidence and quality prosecution have led to justifying torture as the only punishment a suspect would get in the entire process.

The judiciary largely condones torture and the general public believes that the police are legally entitled to torture suspects. There has never been an attempt by the government to educate the police and the public that torture is not only illegal, but is in fact a crime against humanity, that has the viral potential to undermine the very concept of justice and thus a democratic state.

Judicial officers are required by law to enquire from the accused produced before them whether the person is subjected to torture. However they openly refuse to comply this requirement and consider asking a detainee such a question unnecessary. This often ends up in denying a victim the first chance to complain about police torture to a judge. Training provided to the subordinate judiciary does not include this.

The higher judiciary does not consider such systemic procedural lacunae as an important issue to be addressed. In fact a substantial number of judges in the higher judiciary, including those at the Supreme Court do not have an understanding how serious torture is and why the peremptory norm of ius cogens applies to torture. The appalling nature of criminal trials that lack proper evidence and quality prosecution has led to justifying torture as the only punishment a suspect would get in the entire process.

Such misconceptions regarding criminal investigation negate the very notion of criminal justice in the country. That majority police officers resort to torture demoralises those upright officers who would not want to break the law. When torture is condoned, and police records subjected to manipulations, the very concept of fair trial is undermined.

The negation of fair trial guarantees is not an exception, but a character of the Indian criminal justice system. In such an environment it is farcical to argue that the criminal justice apparatus in the country requires ‘correction’. The fact is that there is nothing called justice in the entire process. To bring change into this, what is required is a complete overhaul of the system.

That a police officer has committed suicide due to this fallen system is a tragedy. That the country has lost an officer in whom the people have invested resources is a waste and shame. That an officer did not have means to ventilate his concerns and seek support shows not only how anarchic are conditions within the law enforcement agencies in the country, but also illuminates the alarming fact that the apparatus of criminal investigation is not geared to investigate crime, and help unearth the truth, but is better equipped to cover it up. What is shocking is the banality of it.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.
About Nervazhi: Nervazhi is a human rights organisation operating in Kerala, registered under the Travancore-Cochin, Literary Scientific and Charitable Societies Registration Act, 1955, registered in the year 2007

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