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INDIA: Poor condition of the Basirhat Hospital morgue represents the collapse of post mortem system in West Bengal

August 3, 2005

URGENT APPEALS GENERAL URGENT APPEALS GENERAL URGENT APPEALS GENERAL

ASIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION - URGENT APPEALS PROGRAMME

3 August 2005
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UG-04-2005: INDIA: Poor condition of the Basirhat Hospital morgue represents the collapse of post mortem system in West Bengal

INDIA: Defective policing and post mortem procedures
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Dear friends,

Further to its previous urgent appeals and statements regarding the appalling conditions of morgues and the consequent ill treatment of dead bodies, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) wishes to share information received from MASUM, a human rights organisation in West Bengal, about the Basirhat Hospital morgue in West Bengal, India.

According to MASUM's fact-finding team, at present the morgue is holding more than 150 bodies, the majority of which are unclaimed and unidentified, some having been there for more than three years. Mainly decomposed and rotten, the bodies are kept in a room with no door or windows; the morgue's deep fridge and air conditioner have been dysfunctional for a long time.    Stray dogs, vultures and kites feast on the remnants of bodies in the compound. Information reveals that this is not the only hospital morgue in which dead bodies are handled in this fashion. It is the general practice in all government morgues. For instance, please see the following photos of bodies discarded after post mortems at the Srirampur Government Hospital, Hooghly, West Bengal (Photo 1, Photo 2).

When government authorities were approached regarding the conditions at the Basirhat Hospital morgue, they attempted to avoid responsibility by citing a lack of funds or pointing fingers at other government agencies. The AHRC has constantly pointed out that the terrible conditions of morgues and defective post mortem procedures in West Bengal are linked to the faulty criminal justice system. A defective post mortem system encourages custodial deaths and extra-judicial killings. There is thus no excuse for state authorities to ignore the terrible conditions of the Basirhat morgue. If in fact there is a lack of funds, this speaks to the low priority processes essential to the prevention of crime and protection of human rights by the state government.

We therefore urge you to write to the West Bengal government and demand that they immediately look into the poor conditions of the Basirhat morgue as well as other morgues. Proper funds must be allocated for their adequate functioning and those responsible for their maintenance must be held accountable.

Please see the following for further information regarding morgues, post-mortem procedures and the criminal justice system in West Bengal:
AG-01-2004: INDIA: AHRC letter to the President of India regarding the horrendous practices during forensic examinations in West Bengal
AS-09-2004: INDIA: A human body preserved like a fish and a rotten criminal justice system in West Bengal
AS-03-2004: Custodial deaths in West Bengal and India's refusal to ratify the Convention against Torture
AS-70-2005: INDIA: Failure of the justice system means impunity for torturers

Urgent Appeals Desk
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
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DETAILED INFORMATION:

MASUM, a human rights organisation in West Bengal, India carried out an investigation into the conditions of the morgue at the Basirhat Hospital under North 24-Parganas District, West Bengal, India, and were shocked at not only the appalling conditions, but also the attitudes of the various government officials they spoke to.

Firstly, it must be understood that although post-mortem examinations in West Bengal are meant to be carried out by medical officers attached to government hospitals under the Ministry of Health, it is the police force, under the Home Department, which is responsible for budgetary and other matters. For this reason, MASUM questioned numerous police officers regarding the debilitating conditions of the Basirhat Hospital morgue, where more than 150 bodies lie, most unidentified, in a room with no doors or windows, and with no deep fridge or air conditioning, both of which have been dysfunctional for some time now. For this reason, most of the bodies are now decomposed, with only skeletons remaining. The morgue's open compound is a site for stray dogs, vultures and kites to feed on the remnants of bodies. While some of the officers cited a lack of funds for the morgue's poor conditions, others refused responsibility.

Inspector-in-Charge of the Basirhat police station, Mr Sasanka Chakrabarty responded that the severe lack of funds meant there was little they could do to repair the morgue. Both Mr Krishna Lal Maity, Circle Inspector of Police, and Mr Dilip Bannerjee, Additional Superintendent of Police, 24 Parganas (North) District however, stated that it was not the duty of the police to maintain the morgue.

The Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) of the Home Department, Mr Mussir Alam claimed that nobody had informed him of the condition of the morgue and no money had been asked for repairs. However, MASUM came across a letter sent by the Assistant Engineer of the Public Works Department (PWD), Basirhat (memo no. 483, dated 2 March 2005) to Mr Alam's office as well as to the Additional District Magistrate, North 24 Parganas asking for an immediate sanction of Rs 50,8194. Needless to say, there has been no reply.

Meanwhile, Superintendent of the Basirhat Hospital, Dr Pinaki Chakrabarty, simply said that as he had been in this position for only a month, he should not be held responsible for anything. He also asserted that the number of unclaimed bodies in the morgue was only 40, and the rest had been cremated. He was unable however, to say why more bodies were seen lying in the morgue, what the names of the dead were, or the dates of the post mortems.

Secondly, although medical officers are supposed to carry out post mortem examinations, in actual fact it is the doms, a sub-caste of the Dalits (untouchables), who are usually completely uneducated and often drunk on the job, simply cut the bodies and open them using crude tools while the doctors are simply observers and sign the necessary documents. In this situation, the role of post-mortems and autopsies in establishing the cause of death and detecting the responsible perpetrators is demoted.

Under the dreadful situation, the relatives of the deceased pay 'extra incentives' to doctors and doms, when they conduct a post mortem. But it only guarantees suturing of the body after the post mortem examination. When he was interviewed by MASUM, Jogiya Dom, the 55-year-old permanent staff of the Basirhat Hospital who is frequently involved in the post mortem, said that he usually collects Rs 250 per body from the relatives of the deceased for cremation, because he is not paid for cremation charges from the state government.

In addition, in many cases throughout India, doctors even deliberately or carelessly submits false reports after being bribed which are used as crucial evidence in court. As a result, the perpetrators of crimes escape detection. The situation is getting worse, if the case is related to custodial death or extra judicial killings committed by the law enforcement officers, mainly the police. In this case, autopsy reports are often prepared according to the instructions of the investigating officers who are from the same police station where a person was killed in custody. (AS-70-2005)

Murder of 17-year-old Mousumi Ari will be a good example. She was murdered by her in-laws but the Kakdwip police deliberately eliminated evidence from the crime scene and managed to receive the post mortem report from doctor which stated that it is a suicide case. All these cover-ups took place because one of the accused, the father-in-law of the victim, was attached to the investigating police station. However, when post mortem was conducted again due to huge pressure from the local and international community, it revealed that Mousimi was severely tortured and in fact murdered. (UA-33-2004 and UP-18-2004)

Therefore, the AHRC thus presses the West Bengal state government to immediately correct the situation in morgues throughout the state and ensure that the basic rights of the dead and their families are upheld. In addition, the National Human Rights Commission of India in its guidelines has very clearly mentioned that all post mortem examinations in respect of custodial deaths should be video-filmed and a copy of the recording be sent to the NHRC along with the post mortem report. However, these directions have not been performed in reality. The West Bengal state government must ensure that this is carried out.

The AHRC reminds again that Callousness in handling dead bodies as mentioned above and exploitation of death is also a crime that comes under the ambit of the term 'torture' according to the UN Convention against Torture. The Government of India must ratify the convention and strictly implement it into domestic level without delay to prevent such crimes in the country.


SUGGESTED ACTION:
Please send a letter to the relevant authorities listed below regarding the condition of Basirhat morgue and your concerns in respect to post mortem procedures.

Sample letter:

Dear ____________,

Re: INDIA: Poor condition of the Basirhat Hospital morgue represents the collapse of post mortem system in West Bengal

I write to you in shock regarding the appalling conditions of the Basirhat Hospital morgue, West Bengal, India which is indicative of the defective post mortem and criminal justice procedures existing in West Bengal. This also results in the complete denial of justice to victims of murder and their families.

According to the information I have received, the Basirhat morgue has more than 150 bodies, the majority of which are unclaimed and unidentified, some having been there for more than three years. The bodies are mainly decomposed and rotten, kept in a room with no door or windows; the deep fridge and the air conditioner have been dysfunctional for a long time now. In the open compound in front of this so-called morgue, street dogs, vultures and kites feast on the remnants of the bodies. Information reveals that this is not the only morgue in which dead bodies are handled in such a fashion. It is the general practice at all morgues in government hospitals.

In addition, in West Bengal, although medical officers attached to government hospitals under the Department of Health are supposed to carry out post mortem examinations, in actual fact it is the doms, a sub-caste of the Dalits (untouchables) who are usually unqualified, who do it instead, while the doctors are simply observers and sign the necessary documents. Those documents are used as evidence in court, resulting in the perpetrators of crimes walking free.  

Despite the horrible conditions of the Basirhat morgue, various responsible officers, including Inspector-in-Charge of the Basirhat Police Station, Circle Inspector of Police, and Additional Superintendent of Police of 24 Parganas (North) District, Sub-Divisional Officer of the Home Department and Superintendent of the Basirhat Hospital, are simply avoiding responsibility by citing a lack of funds or pointing fingers at other departments.

I must remind you that defective post mortem system encourages custodial deaths and extra-judicial killings committed by law enforcement officers, especially the police. There is thus no excuse for state authorities to ignore the terrible conditions of the Basirhat morgue.

I therefore urge you to look into the poor conditions of the Basirhat morgue as well as other morgues. Proper funds must be allocated for their adequate functioning and those responsible for their maintenance must be held accountable. I also urge you to strictly implement the guidelines of the National Human Rights Commission of India, which mentions that all post mortem examinations in respect of custodial deaths should be video-filmed and a copy of the recording should be sent to the NHRC along with the post mortem report. Autopsy Report forms prescribed by the NHRC should be used to record the findings of the post-mortem examination.

Lastly, I urge you to use your authority to work towards India's ratification of UN Convention against Torture and implementation into the domestic level without delay. Callousness in handling dead bodies and exploitation of death is also a crime that comes under the ambit of the term 'torture' according to the convention. The Government of India must take genuine action to prevent such crimes in the country.

Yours sincerely,


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SEND A LETTER TO:

1. Mr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
President of India
Rashtrapathi Bhavan,
New Delhi - 110 004
INDIA
Fax: +91 11 23017290/  23017824
E-Mail : presidentofindia@rb.nic.in 

2. Dr. Manmohan Singh
Prime Minister of India
Room No. 152, South Block,
New Delhi - 110 001
INDIA
Tel: +91 11 23012312 / 23013149 / 23019545
Fax: +91 11 23016857

3. Justice A.S. Anand
Chairperson of National Human Rights Commission
Faridkot House, Copernicus Marg,
New Delhi - 110 001
INDIA
Tel. no. +91 11 23382742
Fax no. +91 11 23384863
Email: nhrc@ren.nic.in 

4. Shri Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee
Chief Minister and Minister in Charge of Home (Police) Department
Government of West Bengal
Writers' Buildings, Kolkata - 700001
West Bengal
INDIA
Tel: +91 33 2214 5555 (O) / 2280 0631 (R)
Fax: +91 33 2214 5480
E-mail: cm@wb.gov.in

5. Mr. P.R. Ray
Home Secretary
Government of West Bengal
Writers' Buildings, Kolkata - 700001
West Bengal
INDIA
Tel: +91 33 2214 5656
Fax: +91 33 2214 3001
Email: sechome@wb.gov.in 

6. Dr. Surjya Kanta Mishra
Minister-in-Charge
Ministry of Health
Writers' Buildings, Kolkata-700001
Tel: +91 33 22145600; Extn:4117
Email: michealth@wb.gov.in


7. Justice Shyamal Kumar Sen
Chairperson
West Bengal Human Rights Commission
Bhabani Bhavan, Alipore
Calcutta-700027
INDIA
Tel: +91 33 4797259 / 5558866
Fax: +91 33 4799633
Email: wbhrc@cal3.vsnl.net.in

8. Mr. Philip Alston
Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions
Room 3-016
c/o OHCHR-UNOG, 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland
Tel: +41 22 917 9155
Fax: +41 22 917 9006 (general)
E-mail: urgent-action@ohchr.org


Thank you.

Urgent Appeals Programme
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
Document Type :
Urgent Appeal General
Document ID :
UG-04-2005
Countries :
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Extended Introduction: Urgent Appeals, theory and practice

A need for dialogue

Many people across Asia are frustrated by the widespread lack of respect for human rights in their countries.  Some may be unhappy about the limitations on the freedom of expression or restrictions on privacy, while some are affected by police brutality and military killings.  Many others are frustrated with the absence of rights on labour issues, the environment, gender and the like. 

Yet the expression of this frustration tends to stay firmly in the private sphere.  People complain among friends and family and within their social circles, but often on a low profile basis. This kind of public discourse is not usually an effective measure of the situation in a country because it is so hard to monitor. 

Though the media may cover the issues in a broad manner they rarely broadcast the private fears and anxieties of the average person.  And along with censorship – a common blight in Asia – there is also often a conscious attempt in the media to reflect a positive or at least sober mood at home, where expressions of domestic malcontent are discouraged as unfashionably unpatriotic. Talking about issues like torture is rarely encouraged in the public realm.

There may also be unwritten, possibly unconscious social taboos that stop the public reflection of private grievances.  Where authoritarian control is tight, sophisticated strategies are put into play by equally sophisticated media practices to keep complaints out of the public space, sometimes very subtly.  In other places an inner consensus is influenced by the privileged section of a society, which can control social expression of those less fortunate.  Moral and ethical qualms can also be an obstacle.

In this way, causes for complaint go unaddressed, un-discussed and unresolved and oppression in its many forms, self perpetuates.  For any action to arise out of private frustration, people need ways to get these issues into the public sphere.

Changing society

In the past bridging this gap was a formidable task; it relied on channels of public expression that required money and were therefore controlled by investors.  Printing presses were expensive, which blocked the gate to expression to anyone without money.  Except in times of revolution the media in Asia has tended to serve the well-off and sideline or misrepresent the poor.

Still, thanks to the IT revolution it is now possible to communicate with large audiences at little cost.  In this situation there is a real avenue for taking issues from private to public, regardless of the class or caste of the individual.

Practical action

The AHRC Urgent Appeals system was created to give a voice to those affected by human rights violations, and by doing so, to create a network of support and open avenues for action.  If X’s freedom of expression is denied, if Y is tortured by someone in power or if Z finds his or her labour rights abused, the incident can be swiftly and effectively broadcast and dealt with. The resulting solidarity can lead to action, resolution and change. And as more people understand their rights and follow suit, as the human rights consciousness grows, change happens faster. The Internet has become one of the human rights community’s most powerful tools.   

At the core of the Urgent Appeals Program is the recording of human rights violations at a grass roots level with objectivity, sympathy and competence. Our information is firstly gathered on the ground, close to the victim of the violation, and is then broadcast by a team of advocates, who can apply decades of experience in the field and a working knowledge of the international human rights arena. The flow of information – due to domestic restrictions – often goes from the source and out to the international community via our program, which then builds a pressure for action that steadily makes its way back to the source through his or her own government.   However these cases in bulk create a narrative – and this is most important aspect of our program. As noted by Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando:

"The urgent appeal introduces narrative as the driving force for social change. This idea was well expressed in the film Amistad, regarding the issue of slavery. The old man in the film, former president and lawyer, states that to resolve this historical problem it is very essential to know the narrative of the people. It was on this basis that a court case is conducted later. The AHRC establishes the narrative of human rights violations through the urgent appeals. If the narrative is right, the organisation will be doing all right."

Patterns start to emerge as violations are documented across the continent, allowing us to take a more authoritative, systemic response, and to pinpoint the systems within each country that are breaking down. This way we are able to discover and explain why and how violations take place, and how they can most effectively be addressed. On this path, larger audiences have opened up to us and become involved: international NGOs and think tanks, national human rights commissions and United Nations bodies.  The program and its coordinators have become a well-used tool for the international media and for human rights education programs. All this helps pave the way for radical reforms to improve, protect and to promote human rights in the region.