(Mumbai) – Indian officials need to immediately open transparent and impartial criminal investigations into recent cases where police have assaulted women, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the government of India to overhaul its policies and response to women, children, and transgender people who experience violence. The Indian authorities should protect victims from police intimidation and discrimination, and prevent police interference in investigations and post-assault medical treatment, Human Rights Watch said.
Human rights and social activists in India are gathering on May 14, 2012, in Satara, Maharashtra state, to peacefully protest the police assault and subsequent treatment of a pregnant sex worker. On the eve of the protest, the organizers learned that the police intended to invoke powers to prevent public disorder under the Bombay Police Act, 1951 to try to prevent the peaceful protest from taking place. In a joint letter with 50 national and international organizations and individual activists, Human Rights Watch urged the Indian prime minister to ensure that police officers are held accountable and to create a high-level task force to advise the government on implementing policies, programs, and practices for addressing gender-based violence.
“The state’s response to women who experience violence is often characterized by delay, denial, discrimination, and disregard for women’s dignity,” said Aruna Kashyap, Asia researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “The system needs an urgent, substantial overhaul and officials who fail to carry out their duty or engage in discrimination against those who experience violence should face consequences.”
Two recent cases of violence involve Anu Mokal and Anjana Ghadge, sex workers who were beaten by the police, and Soni Sori, a tribal woman and government teacher from Chhattisgarh state who was arrested and accused of being a Maoist supporter, and then allegedly tortured and sexually assaulted in police custody. These two cases, which occurred in totally different contexts, underscore the urgent need for independent oversight of the police and the need to eliminate police interference in post-assault healthcare.
On April 2 Mokal and Ghadge, both sex workers, were physically assaulted by a police officer on the street in Satara, and then arrested. Mokal, who was pregnant at the time, told Human Rights Watch that although police officers took her to see a doctor at the civil hospital in Satara, they then refused to allow her to have the medication prescribed by the doctor. A few days after being released from custody, Mokal had a miscarriage.
According to local activists, there is no evidence that the state authorities have taken even the initial step necessary to open a criminal investigation against the police officer accused of beating the women – that is the registration of a first information report (FIR). Neither Mokal nor Ghadge have received copies of an FIR, to which they are entitled under Indian law. In fact, Mokal told Human Rights Watch she has come under pressure to withdraw her complaints. Indian authorities should immediately put in place measures to protect Mokal from retaliation or intimidation to withdraw her complaint. They should consult on appropriate measures with her, the activists who have been supporting her, and her lawyers, said Human Rights Watch.
“That a pregnant woman may have miscarried as the result of a reported police beating is particularly shocking,” K. Srinath Reddy, chairperson of the High-Level Expert Group on Universal Health Coverage and a signatory to the joint letter, said to Human Rights Watch. “‘Janani Suraksha’ [Safe Motherhood] is a goal of our national health mission and if a pregnant woman has indeed been attacked by a protector of law, it is not only a violation of law, human rights, and personal dignity but an affront to public health.”
Soni Sori alleges that police in Chhattisgarh state sexually assaulted her while she was in custody and pressured her to implicate others of being Maoist sympathizers after her arrest in October 2011. According to her lawyers, police interfered with the medical examination and prevented her from getting access to appropriate treatment, and she did not receive adequate follow-up care while she was housed in the Raipur jail. According to media reports, no criminal investigation has been initiated against any police officer in her case.
In their joint letter to Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, groups cited the government’s failure to implement the recommendations of several governmental and expert advisory bodies that address gender-based violence. For instance, in 2011 the Planning Commission Working Group on Women’s Agency and Empowerment recommended that the government consider setting up one-stop crisis centers providing shelter, police, legal, medical, and counseling services to victims of violence. Similarly, the High-Level Expert Group on Universal Health Coverage and the Working Group on the National Rural Health Mission recommended taking a stronger health system response to gender-based violence.
“It’s appalling that one arm of the government spends millions on women’s health while another can assault and harm women’s health without facing justice,” said Kashyap. “India cannot boast about its commitment to women’s health unless it adopts a zero-tolerance policy towards police violence and supports women who dare to stand up to it.”
Human Rights Watch and other groups urged the Indian government to set up a high-level task force to advise the government on an appropriate multi-faceted response to violence, including victim and witness protection. The task force should assist the government in developing protocols and standards for how to respond to violence against women and children, especially sexual assault; to prevent discrimination and improper police interference; and to ensure perpetrators are identified and held accountable. The letter called on the government to ensure that vulnerable groups, in particular sex workers, those living with HIV, people with disabilities, people from transgender communities, and those reporting sexual assault by the police, can access appropriate medical treatment without police interference and in a nondiscriminatory manner.
The high-level task force should operate in a transparent and consultative manner, tapping into local and international good practices and expertise, Human Rights Watch said.
Case of Anu Mokal and Anjana Ghadge
On April 2, 2012, Anu Mokal and Anjana Ghadge were going to a hospital to visit a friend who had recently given birth, when they walked past police vans. Mokal told Human Rights Watch that one of the officers called Ghadge over and without any warning began to beat her as the other police officers watched. According to Mokal, when she tried to intervene and told the police officer that he should not hit Ghadge, an elderly woman, the police officer then turned on her and began to hit her.
Mokal said she pleaded with the officer to stop beating her: “When I fell on the floor and tried holding his leg begging him to stop because I was pregnant, he pushed me away and kicked me.” Mokal said that she and Ghadge were then taken to the police lock-up and falsely accused of soliciting for sex work in a public place, an offence under Indian law.
Mokal said the police took her to the civil hospital in Satara that night.
“I showed the doctor the blue-black marks on my body and told her I was pregnant,” she said.
The doctor wrote out a prescription for medication, but according to Mokal, when she asked one of the police officers who had escorted her there if she could purchase the medication, he took the prescription and ordered her back into the police van. The officers took her back to the police lock-up. Mokal was never handed the prescription back and no immediate medical treatment was provided to her.
Before producing her in court the following day, Mokal said that police station officers and staff dressed in civilian clothes approached her and apologized on behalf of their “saab” (sir) and pressured her not to complain against him “because they were all together and nothing would happen to him.” She also told Human Rights Watch that they told her not to bring this up in court when she was produced.
Mokal and Ghadge appeared in court the next day, were fined 1,200 rupees (US$22) each and then released. Since she was in pain and wanted medication, Mokal went to the Satara civil hospital again with local activists soon after she was released. Mokal’s hospital records, which Human Rights Watch has seen, document that she sustained “contusion” and prescribe pain medication and antibiotics.
Within a couple of days of returning home Mokal began to experience bleeding and miscarried, she told Human Rights Watch.
Mokal and Ghadge submitted a written petition of complaint to the Satara police superintendent soon after they were assaulted.
Mokal was admitted to the hospital in Satara following her miscarriage, and in the initial few days she was there, she said an unknown young woman, dressed in jeans and wearing a full face veil that only revealed her eyes, came to her and asked her what action she was planning to take. Mokal says she told the woman that she “would pursue the case and go up to Delhi if needed.” She also says that the woman asked her to drop the case for money. Mokal says she refused to take any money and the woman left.
After the intervention of local activists, a police officer came and took Mokal’s statement while she was in the hospital, while Ghadge gave a statement to the police on May 12, two days before a planned public protest in Satara.
However, even though police have taken statements by Mokal and Ghadge, and despite inquiries from local activists, it appears as if a “first information report” (FIR) was never registered against the police. Under Indian law, complainants have the right to receive a copy of the FIR as soon as it is registered, and neither Mokal and Ghadge nor any of those assisting them have been provided with a copy.
Case of Soni Sori
Chhattisgarh police arrested and accused Soni Sori, a tribal teacher, of being a sympathizer of Maoist rebels. She alleged that police sexually assaulted and tortured her while she was detained in Chhattisgarh police custody in October 2011. She has since been charged, is on trial for several alleged offences and was in the Raipur jail.
Soni Sori’s lawyers sought an order from the Supreme Court of India, granted on October 20, 2011, for her to have an independent medical examination and treatment. Soni Suri was examined and treated at a Kolkata hospital but she claims that she has not been allowed access to the follow-up medical treatment as prescribed by the hospital while she has been in Raipur jail.
On May 2, almost six months after the first order, the Supreme Court of India issued another order, directing the Chhattisgarh police to take Soni Sori to New Delhi for follow-up medical treatment, where she is now.
To date the Chhattisgarh state government has yet to register any FIR and investigate the allegations of torture.