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India: Overhaul Abusive, Failing Police System

Disrepair of Police Forces and Lack of Accountability Contribute to Rights Violations

(Bangalore) - 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 today. 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.

The 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.

"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. "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:

"[M]y 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."

Read additional accounts from victims of police abuse.

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. "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. "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. "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" 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.

Selected Accounts from ‘Broken System'

"She was kept in the police station all night. In the morning, when we went to meet her, they said she had killed herself. They showed us her body, where she was hanging from a tree inside the police station. The branch was so low, it is impossible that she hanged herself from it. Her feet were clean, although there was wet mud all around and she would have walked through it to reach the tree. It is obvious that the police killed her and then pretended she had committed suicide."

- Brother-in-law of Gita Pasi, describing her death in police custody in Uttar Pradesh in August 2006

"We have no time to think, no time to sleep. I tell my men that a victim will only come to the police station because we can give him justice, so we should not beat him with a stick. But often the men are tired and irritable and mistakes take place."

- Gangaram Azad, a sub-inspector who heads a rural police station in Uttar Pradesh state

"They say, ‘investigate within 24 hours,' but they never care about how I will do [that]; what are the resources. ... There is use of force in sensational cases because we are not equipped with scientific methods. What remains with us? A sense of panic surrounds our mind that if we don't come to a conclusion we will be suspended or face punishment. We are bound to fulfill the case, we must cover the facts in any way."

- Subinspector working near Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

"Often, it is our superiors who ask us to do wrong things. It is hard for us to resist. I remember, one time, my officer had asked me to beat up someone. I said that the man would be refused bail and would rot in jail and that was enough punishment. But that made my officer angry."

- Constable in Uttar Pradesh

"With all the mental stress, the 24-hour law-and-order duty, the political pressure, a person may turn to violence. How much can a person take? ... We have to keep watch on an accused person, their human rights, but what about us? Living like this 24 hours. We are not claiming that our power makes us born to work all the times. Sometimes we beat or detain illegally, because our working conditions, our facilities are bad. So we are contributing to creating criminals, militants."

- Inspector in charge of a police station in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh

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