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India's record on custodial torture dismal

NEW DELHI: The Torture Convention was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1984 (resolution 39/46) and it came into force on 26 June 1987 after being ratified by 20 nations. The Torture Convention completed 25 years of its presence earlier this week and it's an opportune moment for India to introspect on its dismal track record of custodial torture.

According to a recent report on human rights in India, a study of 47 districts over a period of more than two years shows that on an average 1.8 million people are victims of police torture and violence in India every year. The release of the report, prepared by the Working Group on Human Rights in India and the UN (WGHR), a coalition of human rights bodies, coincided with India's Universal Periodic Review on human rights at the United Nations. The report cites data released by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which reported an average of 43 deaths in police or prison custody every day in the decade 2001 to 2010. "These figures represent only a fraction of the actual number of deaths in custody as they reflect only the cases registered before the NHRC," says the WGHR report.

The report points to the widespread and routine use of torture in conflict areas, leading to both physical and mental disabilities as well as impotence. "Common methods of torture in Kashmir and the North-East include assault, placement of an iron rod on the legs on which many people sit, placement of a burning stove between the legs and administration of electric shocks to the genitals," adds the report.

A recent case that has caused a lot of international uproar involves the brutal custodial torture of Soni Sori, a 35-year-old adivasi teacher in a government-run school for tribal children in Dantewada, at the hands of the Chhatisgarh police. Sori was arrested on October 4, 2011 on unproven allegations of being a Maoist sympathizer and acting as a conduit to extort Rs 1.5 million for the banned CPI (Maoist) from the Essar group.

The letters written by Sori from the prison tell a very disturbing story. "She said that she was pulled out of her cell at the Dantewada Police Station on the intervening night of October 8 and 9, 2011 and then taken to SP Ankit Garg's room, where on his orders, three men stripped her, gave her electric shocks and inserted stones into her private parts, making her lose consciousness. ...A few months later, SP Ankit Garg, far from being questioned for his role in the Soni Sori case, was awarded a Police Medal for Gallantry by the government for his role in a counter-insurgency operation in 2010," says the WGHR report. After the Supreme Court ordered an independent medical examination of Sori at NRS Medical College, Kolkata, doctors found stones lodged in her vagina and rectum. TOI has a copy of the medical report of the Kolkata hospital that confirms her claims.

The prison diaries of social activist Arun Ferierra, arrested on grounds of being a Naxalite and released several years later for lack of evidence, detail the torture he was subjected to. These aren't isolated instances of police brutality, but an indication of how India treats dissent.

To make matters worse, India does not have a domestic law to address torture and has not ratified the UN Convention Against Torture (1984). A couple of years ago, the Prevention of Torture Bill was drafted and cleared by the Lok Sabha, but it had so many loopholes that human rights activists launched a campaign in protest. The bill was withdrawn and a new one was drafted. The revised bill is now stuck in some dark corner of a deep freezer.

Anahita Mukherji | The Times of India | Jun 28, 2012