Technology alone will not prevent custodial torture

(Edited text of a statement issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission: AHRC-STM-194-2014, November 7, 2014)

While hearing a case concerning the installation of closed circuit cameras inside police stations, Justice T. S. Thakur expressed apprehension that such technology in detention centres could be “misused” by detainees and human rights abuses could be alleged against state officers: “Matters can go to such a head that the SHO (station house officer) would have to bring him (the detainee) chapattis and chicken curry to satisfy him.” This reflects an oft repeated opinion in India, that an accused will not tell the truth if treated well. Even though the judge agreed that “no civilised country should torture its citizens”, it is a fact that all over India detainees are tortured and their rights violated.

Lack of transparency in procedures followed in detention centres, most importantly in the country’s police stations, is one of the reasons why custodial violence is uncontrollable in India. The impossibility to prove that a detainee has been ill-treated in custody, results in impunity for law-enforcement officers. Even if litigation is initiated, it takes years to be decided by the country’s courts. The litigation in which Justice Thakur expressed his opinion is 28 years old.

Justice D. K. Basu, who filed this particular litigation, is also the petitioner in the landmark case, where the Supreme Court in 1996 interpreted the rights of a detainee, and ordered state governments to follow strict procedural laws to ensure that no person will be tortured in custody or held incommunicado. The 1996 judgment and a subsequent amendment to the criminal law has made no improvement to the reality.

With such dishonourable delay considered normal even at the Supreme Court, what chance does a poor detainee in India have to seek and obtain redress for custodial torture, even if such torture happens inside a police station and a closed circuit camera records the incident?

Installing modern technology inside police stations and other detention facilities will indeed have a positive effect. Cameras alone however, cannot prevent torture. Furthermore, custodial violence in India is not used only to extract confessions; it is used to demand bribes, to force a complainant to withdraw legitimate accusations, to silence human rights defenders and social activists, and even to suppress political opposition.

Incidents of torture are also not limited to detention centres. Torture happens inside police vehicles, houses rented by law enforcement agencies to question and illegally detain persons, and above all in broad daylight in front of thousands of people. Torture in India is not a secret. It is the quintessence of the country’s law enforcement.

Getting entangled with the criminal justice process itself is torture, as opined by the incumbent Chief Justice. In actual fact, the country’s criminal justice apparatus is nothing more than a phantom limb. Prevention of crime and safeguarding justice, the two basic tenets of any criminal justice process, are exactly what India’s criminal justice is unable to do. What it can do however, is generate fear in large sections of the population and provide for the vested interests of the rich and powerful. In these circumstances, the justice process does not exist for the poor, whereas for the rich and influential it is nothing more than a commodity to be purchased through bribes and influence.

In order to effectively remedy this reality, India needs to first accept that its criminal justice apparatus is a complete failure. The institutions that make up the criminal justice framework, particularly the police, prosecution, and the magistrate courts, must be rebuilt, equipping them to deal with crimes in a civilized and efficient manner.

It is not the high-ranking police officers—who are the usual beneficiaries of advanced crime investigation training, good salaries and other facilities—that investigate crimes. It is the police constables, the Sub Inspectors and Circle Inspectors who walk the beat and investigate crimes. They however, work in inhuman conditions and without any facilities. Unless this is improved, there cannot be any change in the way they do their work and overlook citizens’ rights.

To the national and state governments, reforming criminal justice institutions is not a priority. All political parties in India expect law enforcement officers to play the role of a ferocious guard dog that will bark or attack when ordered. The government needs to muster political will to make resources available to provide adequate manpower and finance to these institutions.

The presence or absence of closed circuit cameras alone will not help ending torture in India. Such initiatives must be complimented by modernising the police, bringing accountability and professionalism to the office of the public prosecutors, and the Indian judiciary being able to decide cases within a reasonable time. Until this happens, custodial violence will continue.