India’s abusive, failing police system leads to rights violations: Human Rights Watch

By News Desk,

New Delhi: The Indian government should take major steps to overhaul the country’s policing system that facilitates and even encourages human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on August 4. For decades, successive governments have failed to deliver on promises to hold the police accountable for abuses and to build professional, rights-respecting police forces, the report said.

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The report has come at a time when Manipur is burning due to a fake encounter in which a pregnant woman and youth were killed, and almost two weeks after India’s National Human Rights Commission gave a clean chit to the Delhi Police for the Batla House encounter, which the victims’ families, neighbors and large number of human and civil rights activits and groups have described as a fake encounter from the day one – September 19, 2008.

The scene near Batla House, Jamia Nagar

Several police officers admitted to Human Rights Watch that they routinely committed abuses. One officer said that he had been ordered to commit an “encounter killing,” as the practice of taking into custody and extra-judicially executing an individual is commonly known. “I am looking for my target,” the officer said. “I will eliminate him. … I fear being put in jail, but if I don’t do it, I’ll lose my position.”

Almost every police officer interviewed by Human Rights Watch was aware of the boundaries of the law, but many believed that unlawful methods, including illegal detention and torture, were necessary tactics of crime investigation and law enforcement.

The 118-page report, “Broken System: Dysfunction, Abuse and Impunity in the Indian Police,” documents a range of human rights violations committed by police, including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and extrajudicial killings. The report is based on interviews with more than 80 police officers of varying ranks, 60 victims of police abuses, and numerous discussions with experts and civil society activists. It documents the failings of state police forces that operate outside the law, lack sufficient ethical and professional standards, are overstretched and outmatched by criminal elements, and unable to cope with increasing demands and public expectations. Field research was conducted in 19 police stations in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, and the capital, Delhi.

The international rights body has accepted that religious minorities in India are soft target of police atrocities – arbitrary arrest and torture, especially meted out by police as punishment for alleged crimes.

The report documents the particular vulnerability to police abuse of traditionally marginalized groups in India. They include the poor, women, Dalits (so-called “untouchables”), and religious and sexual minorities. Police often fail to investigate crimes against them because of discrimination, the victims’ inability to pay bribes, or their lack of social status or political connections. Members of these groups are also more vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and torture, especially meted out by police as punishment for alleged crimes.

Colonial-era police laws enable state and local politicians to interfere routinely in police operations, sometimes directing police officers to drop investigations against people with political connections, including known criminals, and to harass or file false charges against political opponents. These practices corrode public confidence.

In 2006, a landmark Supreme Court judgment mandated reform of police laws. But the central government and most state governments have either significantly or completely failed to implement the court’s order, suggesting that officials have yet to accept the urgency of comprehensive police reform, including the need to hold police accountable for human rights violations.

The report has some detailed recommendations for police reform drawn from studies by government commissions, former Indian police, and Indian groups. Among the major recommendations are:

Require the police to read suspects their rights upon arrest or any detention, which will increase institutional acceptance of these safeguards;

Exclude from court any evidence police obtain by using torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in suspect interrogations;

Bolster independent investigations into complaints of police abuse and misconduct through national and state human rights commissions and police complaints authorities; and

Improve training and equipment, including strengthening the crime-investigation curriculum at police academies, training low-ranking officers to assist in crime investigations, and providing basic forensic equipment to every police officer.

The Human Rights Watch has reminded the Congress-led UPA government its promise to pursue police reforms actively. A critical step is to ensure that police officers who commit human rights violations, regardless of rank, will face appropriate punishment, the group said.