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Accountability for abuse

Aug 17, 2009

The Indian police system requires a major overhaul to check the rampant use of illegal procedures and unethical methods of investigation, says Human Rights Watch’s new report Broken System: Dysfunction, Abuse and Impunity in the Indian Police. It recommends proper training and enactment of strong laws against torture.

Broken System: Dysfunction, Abuse and Impunity in the Indian Police

Publisher:  Human Rights Watch, August 2009

Broken system report

Drawing on the extensive existing documentation of human rights abuses by the Indian police, Human Rights Watch conducted its own research and found four clusters of issues warranting attention, addressed in separate subsections of this report: police failure to investigate crimes; arrest on false charges and illegal detention; torture and ill-treatment; and extrajudicial killings.

The report documents the particular vulnerability to police abuse of traditionally marginalised groups in India. They include the poor, women, dalits, 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.

There is no time to waste. Police violence and misconduct are so widespread and rooted in institutional practice that public confidence in the police is low and decreasing.

The report outlines the following recommendations to both improve the functioning of the police and curtail abuses:

  • Improve conditions for rank and file officers: Low-ranking police are overworked and often exhausted. Some live in filthy, cramped barracks. In such conditions, they are likely to fall into abusive patterns of behaviour. Minimum standards for housing and work hours should be developed.
  • Improve training and equipment: Increasing the number of junior-ranking officers trained and authorized to conduct investigations and register complaints, and training constables to assist in crime investigations, is critical. The lack of crime investigation training and equipment effectively discourages officers from building cases on forensic evidence and witness statements, rather than coerced confessions.
  • Create a culture that rewards respect for human rights and professional conduct: Provide incentives for better police behaviour. Fill more senior-and junior-ranking positions by promotion, rather than direct recruitment. Senior police should actively encourage junior-ranking officers to innovate police station procedures and publicly laud such work.
  • Create a system of effective independent investigations into complaints of police abuse and misconduct: To reduce impunity, the central and state government should bolster the capacity of the national and state human rights commissions to undertake independent investigations, including the number of investigative staff.
  • Enact laws against torture: The Indian parliament should ratify the Convention Against Torture and amend the Indian Evidence Act to make inadmissible any evidence obtained on the basis of a police interrogation that involved the use of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or other illegal coercion.
  • Repeal laws that encourage impunity: The Indian parliament should repeal Section 197, or retain it but define “official duty” to exclude unconstitutional conduct such as arbitrary detention, custodial torture and ill-treatment, and extrajudicial killings.
  • Require the reading of rights to suspects and put safeguards into place to deter torture: To encourage institutional acceptance of safeguards and reduce abuse, require police to formally recite the suspect’s rights upon arrest or any informal detention.
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