Monday, 29 June 2009

Assam Rights Group Calls for Eradication of Torture

Assam Rights Group Calls for Eradication of Torture

Barak Human Rights Protection Committee (BHRPC), a human rights organization working in Assam, issued a statement on the occasion of International Anti-Torture Day on 26 June, 2009 demanding the Indian Authorities to ratify both the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and its Optional Protocol. The BHRPC also urged the authorities make laws for combating torture.

In the statement the BHRPC reiterated its conviction that torture is deliberate cruelty, a crude and ancient tool of political oppression. It is commonly used to terrorize people, or to wring confessions out of suspected criminals who may or may not be guilty. It is the classic shortcut for a lazy or incompetent investigator.

The statement said, torture destroys the physical and mental integrity of the victim to its core. It also dehumanizes the performer and thus irreparable damages done to men, women and children, families and communities. It prevents societies from nurturing the human and economic development that is a right for all people.

Torture is now absolutely and without any reservation prohibited under international law, whether in time of peace or of war. The prohibition of torture can be considered to belong to the rules of jus cogens. If ever a phenomenon was outlawed unreservedly and unequivocally it is torture.

It is also prohibited in India mainly by Article 21 of the Constitution, section 330 and 331 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 and other laws and also strongly condemned by the Supreme Court of India and High Courts in a number of landmark cases like D. K. Basu Vs. State of West Bengal.

The laws that virtually make confession to a police officer inadmissible as a piece of evidence in a court of law such as Article 20 (3) of the Constitution, sections 25, 26 and 27 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 and sections 161, 162, 163 and 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), 1973 are rooted in the apprehension that police may subject the accused to torture to extract confession. It is a constitutional and statutory recognition that police may resort to torture and ill treatment.

The constitutional and statutory concern and mistrust of its own police and security forces is based on the experience of decades and find strong echo in judicial pronouncements. In Niranjan Singh v. Prabhakar Rajaram (AIR 1980 SC 785) the Supreme Court emphatically observed that, “The police instead of being protector of law, have become engineer of terror and panic putting people into fear.”

BHRPC is aware that there are no accurate data on the use of torture in India since the Government does not have an unambiguous and strong policy against torture. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) gathers figures on custodial deaths. But only a limited number of cases of torture results in death. Moreover, cause of death in the custody may not always be torture.

BHRPC relies on the Human rights groups with great credentials who maintain that torture is integral to counterinsurgency operations conducted by the military. Torture is used routinely in police custody. While torture is applied less systematically by prison officials, they remain often complicit in gang violence among inmates. Torture is also almost always resorted to by the Armed Opposition Groups. Torture is committed by the individuals or groups belonging to upper strata of the society upon the socially lower class people. Sometimes community organizations also resort to torture. Women and children are most vulnerable victims of regular torture in the form of domestic, sexual and other violence.

Any official denials of this level of torture should be balanced against the view of the Supreme Court of India that has pointed out that the police ‘more often than not seek to pervert the truth’. —State of Madhya Pradesh v. Shyam Sunder Trivedi and Ors. 1995 (4) SCC 262.
In the Unstarred Question No. 568, answered on 22.10.2008 in the Rajya Sabha it is stated that four persons died or had been killed in prison and police custody every day during the period between 2002-07 and as many as 7468 custodial deaths have occurred in the period but only a fraction are convicted for it.

Based on data provided by the NHRC the Asian Centre for Human Rights states in its report titled ‘TORTURE IN INDIA 2008: A State of Denial’ that about 1500 persons die in custody of the State each year. Only 4 police personnel were convicted in 2004 and 3 in 2005. In 2004, 37 personnel were charge sheeted and 25 personnel were charge-sheeted in 2005 for custodial death and other criminal offences. Impunity for these custodial crimes stands exposed from the accepted number of custodial deaths, compensation granted by the NHRC and courts based on the evidence, and the lack of corresponding prosecution of the guilty law enforcement personnel.
The staement asserted that there is no debate that the State is directly responsible for torture committed by its own officials and it also can not shun responsibility of protecting the citizens from non-state torturers and in cases of failure it has the obligation under international law as well as under Article 21 of the Constitution to provide and enforce rights of the victim to remedies, justice and truth including due punishment of violator. These figures point finger to a very grim state of things.

BHRPC claimed that the government of India practises double standard regarding torture and argued that there are laws in India which encourage, condone torture and provide immunity to the torturer. Section 4 (a) of the Armed Forces (Special Power) Act, 1958 empowers any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed force to ‘use force even to the causing of death’ against any person and section 6 ensures immunity of such torturer. Sections 45 and 197 of CrPC also guarantee such impunity.

These laws require prior permission of the government for the prosecution of security and law enforcement personnel accused of torture. It is argued that these legal immunity and protections are necessary to protect security forces and other law enforcement officials from false, malicious, frivolous and vexatious litigations for actions taken in good faith. This argument ignores that primarily it is the duty of the judiciary to see whether a complaint is based on false facts or malicious, frivolous and vexatious. The usurpation of this duty from the judiciary in this way amounts to statutory mistrust of the judiciary of the country.

Apart from this legal impunity, it is well known that there is a regime of de facto impunity for the police and security forces. In a country where normally police demand bribes for registering First Information Report it is almost impossible for the victims to get a case registered in a police station against any member of the police or security forces and attempt to do so often brings further suffering.

BHRPC also claimed that this double standard of the government of India towards torture is also evident from its attitude towards United Nations Human Rights Mechanism. India is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but has a reservation on Article 9, which, inter alia states that ‘anyone who has been the victim of unlawful arrest or detention shall have an enforceable right to compensation’. Reservation has been made on the grounds that “under the Indian Legal System, there is no enforceable right to compensation for persons claiming to be victims of unlawful arrest or detention against the State”.

Though the courts have regularly awarded compensation, there is no coherence to the awards, the amount of compensation depending on individual judges. Nonetheless, Courts across India continue to award compensation and prosecute the guilty law enforcement personnel. Increasingly, the courts have been directing the State to recover compensation from guilty personnel.

India signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) on 14 October, 1997. The government of India stated “ratification of the Convention is to follow”. More than a decade has passed since the signing of the Convention. Nepal and Sri Lanka have already ratified the CAT.

In its 2004-2005 Annual Report, the NHRC reported that the Ministry of Home Affairs informed the NHRC that Inter-Ministerial Group consisting of the Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Law and Justice on the question of early ratification of the CAT had been established. To date no recommendation has been made public.

India has the dubious distinction of holding the record for refusing an invitation to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, which it has refused since 1993. Pakistan (1997), Nepal (September 2005), China (November 2005) and Sri Lanka (2007) have all invited the Special Rapporteur.

This double standard can also be seen in the constitution as well as conduct of the NHRC. The orders of the NHRC are not mandatory. They are just toothless recommendations. Moreover, NHRC is barred under section 19 of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 to hold its own investigation into the cases involving armed forces.

NHRC has also developed a tendency to grant only monetary compensations ignoring its mandate to recommend for the initiation of prosecution. More over, there is a more disturbing aspect of NHRC’s conduct regarding torture cases. It has been seen that the NHRC has been dismissing cases of torture where a prima facie case exists; and in dismissing the case the NHRC has chosen to deny the complainants’ access to key evidence as well as denying the complainant a hearing. Under Section 13 of the Human Rights Protection Act, NHRC has the powers of a civil court for investigation purposes. Hence, NHRC is equivalent to a tribunal and while adjudicating the cases, complainants have the statutory and constitutional right to receive a copy of all the documents made available to the NHRC. The complainant has the constitutional right to a hearing before the NHRC passes a final order. Sometimes these aspects are totally ignored.

The statement informed that the BHRC submitted the following recommendations to the Prime Minister of India:

1. Enact a legislation to criminalise torture incorporating the provisions of the cat including putting the onus of proving innocence on the State in all cases of crimes in custody and provide compensation to the victims;

2. Repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 and other laws providing impunity including Sections 45 and 197 of the CrPC.

3. Amend the Human Rights Protection Act, 1993 to make its recommendation mandatory and repeal section 19 in order to bring the armed forces under the purview of the NHRC;

4. Ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and its Optional Protocol;

5. Withdraw reservations to Articles 20, 21 and 22 of the CAT and Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;

6. Cooperate with the United Nations and extend invitation to the UN Special Rappoprteur on Torture whose request for visit has been pending since 1993.

Copies of the letter also sent to the Union Minister for Home Affairs, Union Minister for External Affairs, Union Minsiter for Law and Justice.

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