Friday, November 25, 2011

The Scandal of India's Human Rights

Activists are too often killed, ‘disappeared’ or intimidated

India scarcely has a human rights record it can be proud of. Killings of human rights activists, intimidation and `disappearance’ of those who question the state’s ways, widespread use of torture by law enforcement agencies and the Parliament’s continued inability to enact enabling legislation to prevent human rights violations, underscore a disregard for basic humanitarian laws.

The recently-released Asian Center for Human Rights Report, 'Torture in India 2011' further reinforces this reality. The report states that between 2001 and 2010, 14,231 persons – or more than four persons per day -- died in police and judicial custody in India. This includes 1,504 deaths in police custody and 12,727 deaths in judicial custody. The northern state of Uttar Pradesh leads the tally in judicial custody with 2,171 deaths, followed by Bihar (1,512), Maharashtra (1,176), Andhra Pradesh (1,037) and Tamil Nadu (744).

According to the ACHR’s director, Suhas Chakma, 99.99 percent of deaths in police custody can be ascribed to torture and occur within 48 hours of the victim being taken into custody. Denial of medical facilities and sub-human conditions in jails are the other reasons for these alarming figures according to the official.

However, these deaths, Chakma told the media, reflect only a fraction of the problem as not all deaths in police custody and prisons are reported to the National Human Rights Commission, the country’s premier body for the protection of human rights.

As far back as 1997, the UN human rights committee expressed its anxiety about the widespread use of torture by law enforcement agencies in India. But despite the grim scenario, the Ministry of Home Affairs has failed to introduce the Prevention of Torture Bill, 2010 that is designed to address the problem. Neither have existing laws been modified to hold perpetrators accountable.

The landmark torture bill, say legal experts, is the preliminary step towards ratification of the UN Convention against torture adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1975. But India has not yet ratified the convention although has been a signatory since October 1997. The ratification requires enabling legislation that would be necessary to give effect to the Articles of the Convention which is currently not in place.

The parliament has ignored calls from Amnesty International to ensure fair trials at international standards while organizations like the United Nations and the European Union have consistently voiced their unease at India's disregard for humanitarian laws.

To make matters worse, India has recently witnessed a surge in human rights violations. India’s transparency law — Right To Information — came into force in 2005. But while the legislation has given India a new crop of citizen activists who have lobbied successfully for transparency and change, police raids on human rights activists, their intimidation and killings underscore another murky reality.

The violations also spotlight the state’s impotence in protecting activists. According to the National RTI Forum, at least 12 information seekers have been killed across the country since 2008. The gunning down of Shehla Masood, 36 in broad daylight in Bhopal in front of her house on Aug. 16 raises fundamental questions about the safety of activists in a multiparty democracy. Masood had questioned the Madhya Pradesh government’s policy of favoring certain individuals with her information queries. Her killers are yet to be arrested.

Police sources say the possible cause of Masood’s assassination was her right to information crusades. The activist had been protesting illegal diamond mining in her state in connivance with top government officers. She was also instrumental in highlighting tiger and leopard killings which are transpiring right under the noses of forest officers.

Another activist, Amit Jetwa, 36, who had used the information act to expose illegal mining and encroachment near Gir forest in Gujarat, met with a gory end in July 2010. Satish Shetty, 38, a whistleblower, credited with exposing major land scams in the southern Talegaon and Lonavala regions, was assassinated in January 2010. He had exposed corrupt land deals in and around the country’s first expressway, the Mumbai-Pune expressway.

“These acts of violence underscore a larger governance crisis and the failure of the government to protect its citizens,” says Abbas Mehkri, a New Delhi-based civil lawyer. “It is also a chilling statement on the State’s growing intolerance towards dissent.”

Activists have pointed to the need for legal protection for information seekers by strengthening the current public interest and disclosure bill currently tabled in Parliament.

But legal protection alone isn’t the panacea to protect activists. “After each killing there’s media pressure and the government promises us `better security’. But instead of gun-toting policemen, shouldn’t we have a secure environment where ordinary citizens can take up social issues sans fear? There is simply no strong forum for addressing popular grievances in the country," says Sumati Mehta, an NGO worker.

Besides physical attacks, Mehta says, activists are routinely harassed and slapped with fraudulent cases. Frequent cases of illegal detention, torture, extrajudicial execution and forced disappearances are also quite common, she says.

Unfortunately, India doesn’t acknowledge the occurrence of such torture. Officials routinely attribute these custodial deaths to "illness/natural death, escaping from custody, suicides, attacks by other criminals, riots, due to accidents and during treatment or hospitalization”.

It is well-known that the country’s burgeoning armed opposition groups, the Naxals or Maoists have an appalling human rights record of killing, torturing and mutilating ordinary citizens. Cadres of the Kanglei Yaol Kanna Lup of Manipur also have been accused of widespread torture including deliberately mutilating the victims by bullet wounds to the legs. In a democratic framework, any extralegal activity by police undermines not only the established procedural set-up, but also the fundamentals of governance.

Human Rights Watch had sent a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh some time back making specific recommendations “to improve accountability of the security forces for human rights violations, to strengthen civil society and support for free expression, and to protect the rights of women and other vulnerable groups”.

The body noted that "security forces in India have been responsible for abuses such as extra-judicial killings, disappearances and torture, especially in Punjab and Nagaland in the 1980s, and currently in Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Manipur, and in states where there is a Maoist insurgency". It further noted that "impunity is a major problem in India; serious crimes perpetuated by security forces are rarely investigated or prosecuted".

The UN has also recommended that the draconian Armed Forces Special Forces Act, (which effectively guarantees impunity by stipulating that central government permission is needed before security personnel can be prosecuted for abuses) also be repealed. The provisions of the Act were sanctioned by India's Supreme Court.

Says Pratham Prakash, an RTI activist, “In India, torture is seen as a part of the police package to extract confessions. This practice has its provenance in British colonial rule when laws governing police functions were framed as an oppressive force to keep the population terrorized.”

However, some senior police officers justify the use of torture as a means to “extract confessions”. A retired police official once told this correspondent that the police forces in India are under tremendous pressure to produce quick results despite limited infrastructure. “The proliferation of 24/7 news channels,” said the official, “has put us under immense scrutiny. So to expedite proceedings, we often have to pick up and interrogate a lot of people and sometimes things do get out of control.”

Top legal experts have for long underscored a glaring paucity of an impartial mechanism in India for addressing complaints against torture. The complaints, as per current law, have to be made to the police authorities themselves which allows the latter to pressurize and harass the victims and skew things in their favor.

Ideally, rights bodies and commissions should be empowered to take steps to protect activists by creating formal procedures to report threats and intimidation and monitoring follow-up action by authorities to protect activists.

Several countries have already put in place laws to protect whistleblowers or are in the process of doing so. The US was one of the earliest to have the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, while the UK has the Public Interest Disclosure Act of 1998 and Norway has a similar law in place since January 2007.

Just like anti-corruption laws, whistleblower protection laws in India have been long and conveniently ignored by the government. This leaves men and women who question the state’s ways at the killers’ mercy.

(By Neeta Lal New Delhi-based senior journalist.)

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