Overhaul policing system to arrest the alarming human rights violations by police

Overhaul policing system to arrest the alarming human rights violations by police

The Indian government should take major steps to overhaul a policing system that facilitates and even encourages human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said in a report released in Lucknow on 7 August 2009 at UP Press Club. 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, according to the report 'Broken System: Dysfunction, Abuse, and Impunity in the Indian Police.'

The report launch was organized by 'Uttar Pradesh Shehri Gharib Kaamgar Sangharsh Morcha', People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) and Human Rights Watch.

"This 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" said Asheesh Awasthi, Convener, 'Uttar Pradesh Shehri Gharib Kaamgar Sangharsh Morcha.'

"India is modernizing rapidly, but the police continue to use their old methods: abuse and threats," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch in a press statement. "It's time for the government to stop talking about reform and fix the system."

A fruit vendor in Varanasi described how police tortured him to extract confessions to multiple, unrelated false charges:

"[My] hands and legs were tied; a wooden stick was passed through my legs. They started beating me badly on the legs with lathis (batons) and kicking me. They were saying, ‘You must name all the members of the 13-person gang.' They beat me until I was crying and shouting for help. When I was almost fainting, they stopped the beating. A constable said, ‘With this kind of a beating, a ghost would run away. Why won't you tell me what I want to know?' Then they turned me upside down... They poured water from a plastic jug into my mouth and nose, and I fainted."

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 Indian government elected in May has promised to pursue police reforms actively. Human Rights Watch said that a critical step is to ensure that police officers who commit human rights violations, regardless of rank, will face appropriate punishment.

"Police who commit or order torture and other abuses need to be treated as the criminals they are," said Adams in the statement. "There shouldn't be one standard for police who violate the law and another for average citizens."

Human Rights Watch also said that while not excusing abuses, abysmal conditions for police officers contribute to violations. Low-ranking officers often work in difficult conditions. They are required to be on-call 24 hours a day, every day. Instead of shifts, many work long hours, sometimes living in tents or filthy barracks at the police station. Many are separated from their families for long stretches of time. They often lack necessary equipment, including vehicles, mobile phones, investigative tools and even paper on which to record complaints and make notes.

Police officers told Human Rights Watch that they used "short-cuts" to cope with overwhelming workloads and insufficient resources. For instance, they described how they or others cut caseloads by refusing to register crime complaints. Many officers described facing unrealistic pressure from their superiors to solve cases quickly. Receiving little or no encouragement to collect forensic evidence and witness statements, tactics considered time-consuming, they instead held suspects illegally and coerced them to confess, frequently using torture and ill-treatment.

"Conditions and incentives for police officers need to change," Adams said in the statement. "Officers should not be put into a position where they think they have to turn to abuse to meet superiors' demands, or obey orders to abuse. Instead they should be given the resources, training, equipment, and encouragement to act professionally and ethically."

"Broken System" also 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.

"India's status as the world's largest democracy is undermined by a police force that thinks it is above the law," said Adams in the statement. "It's a vicious cycle. Indians avoid contact with the police out of fear. So crimes go unreported and unpunished, and the police can't get the cooperation they need from the public to prevent and solve crimes."

Broken System: Dysfunction, Abuse, and Impunity in the Indian Police report sets out 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.