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Police brutality

Citizen caned

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FACING UP: Hospital reports corroborate Soni Sori's allegations of custodial torture (above); Bangalore youth Sampath (left) who was allegedly tortured by city police in March last year seeks justice

Victims of police brutality rarely get justice. The procedures for seeking redressal are complicated and often the panelists on the Police Complaint Authority are men in uniform. The Soni Sori incident is a case in point.

If you are arrested for no fault of yours and severely tortured in jail, will the perpetrators be brought to book? If a policeman hammers you in full public view, will he ever be punished ? If you were to put these questions to Ramesh Rawat, he is likely to shake his head in despair. Two years ago, this rickshaw driver says, he was brutally beaten up by the police on the streets of Dehradun for questioning a policeman who issued him a chalan. "He beat me so badly that I was hospitalised and had to undergo surgery, " says Rawat in a telephonic interview with TOI-Crest.

He complained about the policeman to the Uttarakhand Police Complaint Authority (PCA), but nothing came of it. "I have submitted medical reports of my injuries and testified several times before the authority, but the case is still pending, " he says. "The police even put me under lock-up to force me to withdraw the complaint. One of the members of the PCA is a retired IPS officer. He even swore at me and argued that I must have done something wrong. "

While Uttarakhand has a retired IPS officer on its PCA, Kerala, the only state to have PCAs at the state and district level, has serving police officers on its PCAs.

"I have sat through a session at a Kerala PCA where the complainant, a victim of police torture, was unable to speak or register his complaint because the man in front of him was in uniform, " says Navaz Kotwal, Police Reforms Coordinator with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). Kotwal edited a CHRI report released earlier this year called Police Complaints Authorities: Reforms Resisted. Rawat was one of many victims interviewed for the report.

Accurate statistics on police violations are virtually impossible to come by. The available data paints a bleak picture of police accountability. "Of the total complaints registered against police officers in 2009, departmental, magisterial and judicial inquiries were instituted in only about 46 per cent of the complaints . . . 51. 2 per cent remained un-investigated, " says the report. Further, of 1, 279 cases against police officers sent for trial in 2009, only142 trials were completed and even in these, 70 per cent of police personnel were acquitted, says the report.

"There are multiple channels through which one can complain against the police. Depressingly most of them don't work, " says former IPS officer YP Singh, who cited corruption as the reason for quitting the service.

According to Singh, the nexus between junior police officers and their seniors, as well as the one between the police and politicians whom they have paid for postings, ensures that little action is ever taken against the police.

In 2006, the Supreme Court directed each state to set up a Police Complaints Authority both at the state and district levels. But CHRI's recent report shows that only 18 of 28 states have set up a PCA. Of the 18, the authority is functional in only eight states: Assam, Chandigarh, Haryana, Goa, Kerala, Puducherry, Tripura and Uttarakhand. None of the PCAs comply with all the Supreme Court guidelines. Those that are functional are often designed to fail.

For starters, states have needlessly complicated procedures for filing a complaint. According to the Assam Police Act, complaints against police officers need to be accompanied by a sworn statement. There is also a fine for frivolous complaints.

In Uttarakhand, complaints must be on stamp paper. Victims need to submit multiple copies of the complaint and the cost of notarising a complaint is Rs 500. Victims are daunted enough to hire lawyers to represent them. Except in Kerala, victims have to travel long distances to register a complaint at the state PCA.

The very composition of the PCA often violates the SC order, according to which the chairman of the state-level PCA must be a retired High Court/ Supreme Court judge chosen by the state government from a panel of names proposed by the chief justice.

The other members are to be chosen by the government from a panel prepared by the state human rights commission. In practice, all members of functional PCAs are appointed directly by state governments.
The Haryana PCA consists of a single member, a retired IAS officer as chair. Kerala has subverted the system by appointing serving police officers and "no independent members who do not wear the government hat. "

The Tripura Police Act says that not more than one member of the PCA should be a police officer. In violation of its own Act, there are two retired police officers as members.

"Complainants recounted experiences of further threats, and even physical torture and illegal detention in some cases, after they complained to the PCA, or when they tried to file an FIR against the police officers concerned, " says the report.
"It is very difficult for an ordinary person to register an FIR against anyone. It is virtually impossible to register an FIR against the police. If you try to do so in Chhattisgarh, the police will brutally beat you and then register a case of Naxalism against you, " alleges Colin Gonsalves, Supreme Court advocate and founder director, Human Rights Law Network.

"The maximum that a PCA would do is to recommend that an FIR be registered against the police officer or that a departmental inquiry be held. This means that after the PCA spends time carrying out its own inquiry the police must carry out a similar one against its own officials, " says Kotwal. He points to several instances in Chandigarh where a departmental inquiry has given a police officer a clean chit despite the PCA recommending action against him.

"We had gone on a hunger strike in prison to protest the fact that the person in charge of investigating our wrongful arrest and detention was the person who had put us in jail to begin with, " says social activist Arun Ferriera, wrongfully jailed for four years on the false charge of being a Naxalite.

He says the biggest problem when it comes to registering a complaint of custodial torture is finding witnesses, as the only witnesses are other police officials or prisoners who are anyway in the hands of the police.
The CHRI report cites a case where a person threatened to lodge a complaint against the officer for naming him an accused in false cases. To this the officer said, "If you make a complaint against the police, you'll have to approach the police;and you know nothing will come of it. "

This is a sad fact both the public and the police are aware of. Take for instance a case where a 16-year-old boy was assaulted by a builder over a family dispute in 2009. When his parents approached the police, they refused to register a complaint against the builder and registered a case against the boy instead. The family complains of continued police harassment, with no action taken against the errant police officer.

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