The last time I saw my son alive, he was begging me to save him. He told me that the policemen holding him in custody beat him with a belt the entire night, forcing him to confess to the crime.” Leonard Valdaris’s son Agnelo died in police custody in Mumbai on April 18, 2014, two days after being arrested for theft. Agnelo is one of 591 people who died in police custody between 2010 and 2015, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
Like many others, Agnelo was listed as having died of natural causes. Suicide and illness are other common causes listed by the authorities. However, research by Human Rights Watch and other monitoring groups have shown that many of these deaths are likely caused by torture. India has strict laws and procedures in place, including directions from the Supreme Court and guidelines by the National Human Rights Commission, to protect against police torture as well as to ensure accountability in case of violations. But the police still often tortures suspects to punish them, gather information, or coerce confessions. The Supreme Court has repeatedly noted that with custodial crimes, producing evidence against the police is very difficult.
As the judges said in one such ruling, the police feels, “bound by its ties of brotherhood”. In both police custody and in jails, the accused are afraid to report mistreatment because of reprisals. Families of custodial death victims, who choose to pursue criminal complaints, often face intimidation. Police torture isn’t the only cause of unlawful custodial death. NCRB statistics show 1,584 deaths in prison in 2015, pointing to a death every six hours. A 2016 report by the Delhi-based NGO Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative found that out of 1,387 jails across India, only five were monitored as required by the law, and only four states had appointed independent visitors in all their jails. A pending national law prohibiting torture, introduced in Parliament in 2010, lapsed in 2014 due to inaction.
It is little surprise then that during India’s May 2017 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council, 35 countries raised the issue of torture in India. They called on India to ratify the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which India had signed in 1997 but never ratified. India’s then-attorney general, Mukul Rohatgi, leading the government’s delegation at the UPR, reiterated India’s commitment to ratify the treaty, but at the same time commented that “the concept of torture is completely alien to our culture and it has no place in the governance of the nation.”
Rohatgi’s statement is a travesty of truth for the families of Valdaris, Shetye and hundreds of others. Instead of denial, the government should start ensuring implementation of safeguards, prosecute perpetrators, and establish effective oversight over police stations and prisons.