29 June 2020
By Damini Nath
A father and son were arrested for allegedly keeping their shops open past the permitted hours during the COVID-19 lockdown
The alleged torture and killing of two Tamil Nadu traders, a father and son, by police last week pointed towards a broken criminal justice system and highlighted the need for police reforms and the ratification of the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), a statement issued by the Executive Committee (India) of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) said on Monday.
The committee, which is chaired by former Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, said the alleged custodial killings of P. Jayaraj and his son J. Benicks in Thoothukudi underlined the urgent need for a strong law in fulfilment of legal obligations. The two had been arrested for allegedly keeping their shops open past the permitted hours during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“India remains among a handful of countries yet to ratify the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT),” the statement said, adding that the National Human Rights Commission had said custodial violence and torture were “rampant” in the country.
Citing the National Campaign Against Torture’s June 26 report that said 1,731 people had died in custody in 2019, the statement said: “Given the reality and the circumstances of the recent deaths, we urge the government of India to bring a draft law on torture before Parliament as a top priority and announce its commitment to the UNCAT.”
The Centre, particularly the Ministry of Home Affairs, should engage with the UNCAT, which India had signed in 1997, it said.
“India has since pledged several times to ratify it, including as recently as 2018. Despite two official bills which lapsed, a private member’s bill and a report by the Law Commission, the issue has not been a priority of the Central government. We wish to point out that India is among the few countries that have not ratified the CAT – 170 have, including Pakistan and China. India is in the company of 25 other nations which have not ratified.”
The CHRI executive committee said there was a need to go beyond condemning the police personnel involved and prosecute them with the full weight of the law.
“The reason for the detention and death of the men — that they were keeping their stores open beyond the authorised hours — is another example of the impunity with which police and government authorities have been functioning across jurisdictions during the pandemic, where restrictions on freedom of movement, assembly and expression have been enforced arbitrarily,” the statement said.
The CHRI committee asked for immediate arrest of the policemen involved.
The statement, issued by Mr. Habibullah and CHRI international director Sanjoy Hazarika, was also on behalf of the committee members Justice (retired) Madan B. Lokur, Justice (retd.) A.P. Shah, Vineeta Rai, Poonam Muttreja, Nitin Desai, Kamal Kumar, Jacob Punnoose, Jayanto N. Choudhury, B.K. Chandrashekhar, Maja Daruwala and Kishore Bhargav.