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India’s shocking toll of custodial deaths, Herald Malaysia Online

Herald Malaysia Online
11 July 2020

By Bijay Kumar Minj

India records an average of nearly five custodial deaths each day and most victims are from the Muslim, Dalit and tribal communities.

India records an average of nearly five custodial deaths each day and most victims are from the Muslim, Dalit and tribal communities.

A report published by the National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT) released on June 26 said 1,731 persons died in custody in India during 2019. Of those, 1,606 died in judicial custody and 125 died in police custody.

The number was worse in 2018 with 1,966 deaths, but NCAT said the figures do not reflect the extent and incidents of custodial deaths and torture in the country.

“The report is alarming and civil society and the government must urgently address it at a war footing pace or the poor and downtrodden will continue to suffer,” Father Nicholas Barla, secretary of the Indian bishops’ Commission for Tribal Affairs.

Fr Barla, also a lawyer, said the main reason for custodial deaths among Dalits, Muslims and tribal people is lack of knowledge of the law, which leaves them vulnerable to people with influence.

“Police are rarely challenged or questioned as per the law, which is very unfortunate,” he said. “If you go to any police station or jail, you will find most of the arrested or accused are poor and marginalised people who can’t afford a lawyer  and are ignorant of their rights.”

NCAT director Paritosh Chakma said that out of the 125 deaths in police custody reported in 2019, 75 victims (60 per cent) related to people from poor and marginalised communities.

Most deaths were in Uttar Pradesh, with 14, followed by Tamil Nadu and Punjab, with 11 each, and Bihar with 10.

Chakma said victims were picked up for petty crimes such as theft, burglary, cheating and gambling, indicating their economic status.

Methods of torture included hammering iron nails into bodies, hitting private parts, applying chili powder to private parts, urinating in mouths and forcing victims to perform oral sex, Chakma said.

NCAT highlighted that in many cases, the police attempted to destroy evidence of torture by not conducting post-mortems. Bodies of torture victims were often quickly cremated.

Franklin Caesar Thomas, founder of the National Council of Dalit Christians, said that “it is nothing new because Dalits, Muslims and tribals are subject to discrimination and suppressed.”

The situation will not change unless they are taught about their rights, he warned.

“They are tortured and sup pressed in jail or police custody because they are easy targets who will not revolt due to their socioeconomic conditions. There have been several cases when they were forced to sign a document where they admitted a crime they did not do,” said Thomas, a Supreme Court lawyer.

“The best way to save them from these difficulties is to teach them about the law, but it will take sustained efforts from civil society and the government.”

Muhammad Arif, chairman of the Center for Harmony and Peace, said that when a crime is committed, only the names of Dalits, Muslims or tribal people appear. “Does this mean that people from other communities do not commit any crime?”, he asked.

Arif said authorities know very well that it is easy to target the marginalised because they can’t retaliate due to their lack of finances or back-up from their own communities.

Two Christian men died in the southern state of Tamil Nadu last month after allegedly being tortured by police.

Rights groups are urging India to introduce laws against custodial torture and to end impunity for perpetrators.

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