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14 August, 2009

Encounter killing and custodial torture a disgrace for the nation, says AHRC

The following is a statement issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong:

India will celebrate its 62nd year of independence tomorrow. While politicians and national leaders celebrate the Independence Day, delivering speeches and attending dinners, they will have to struggle to explain why often men and women in the country lose their life each year in encounters with the law enforcement agencies. The policy makers of the largest democracy of the world will also find it difficult to explain why the people's confidence about their law enforcement agencies is at an all time low.

This argument is highlighted in an incident that happened in Imphal, the capital of Manipur state on 23 July. On that day, two persons were shot dead by the Manipur Police Commando Unit in Imphal in broad daylight. Of the two persons killed, one was a woman, seven-months pregnant, who was shot in front of her three-year-old son. Five more persons were injured, four of them seriously, when the police indiscriminately fired at the crowd, with total disregard to the safety and life of the civilians they are bound to protect.

The shame of Manipur was brought to an all time high when the Chief Minister of the state, shamelessly readout in the Manipur State Assembly, a statement prepared by his police chief. The Chief Minister said that "there is no other way to deal with terrorists other than killing them", to establish peace in the state.

The statement of the Chief Minister vouch for the fact that after 62 years of independent existence, Indians are engaged in murdering themselves for a multitude of reasons, including that of safety and security. The number of people losing their life to law enforcement agencies each year in the country is higher than the statistics during the British rule. In the past eight months alone an estimated 463 persons have lost their life to state agencies in 'encounter killings'.

The sentiment expressed by the Chief Minister of Manipur after the July 23 incident echo the 'official' position regarding dealing with crime and maintaining law and order throughout the country. Murder with impunity has become so common that it is no more of 'news value' to the media. In fact the country's media have even started using terms like 'encounter specialist' for murderer police officers, in an attempt to glorify their misdeeds.

Each case of encounter killing is a further dent to democracy and the rule of law. The existing legal framework, as envisaged in the Constitution, does not allow encounter killings. Such a concept cannot coexist with constitutionalism, the rule of law and the principles of democracy.

Every case of murder at the hands of the law enforcement agencies is an act of crime committed by the state and a negation of the principles of natural justice. Encounter killing or in whatever euphemist way such murders are referred to, is a denial of justice to a suspect. It is a violation of the fundamental right to be presumed innocent and until tried by an impartial court. Encounter killing is a denial of the fundamental right to life.

Often such murders leave a traumatised family who would never have an opportunity to prove the guilt of a murderer police officer and the innocence of the deceased. The murder encourages violence and creates psychopaths within the law enforcement agencies. Yet, state and central governments in the country encourages their law enforcement agencies to commit murder with statutory impunity. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 is one such law.

Encounter killing is the cancer that has grown into the organisational psyche of the law enforcement agencies. It is the product of the long practice of custodial torture, as cancer is to smoking.

Custodial torture is viewed as the only tool for law enforcement in the country. Like in the case of murder, torture too is a crime committed by the law enforcement agencies. Yet, police officers of all ranks and the politicians justify torture as an essential tool for law enforcement in India. These arguments date back to the period of Spanish inquisition and have no place in a democracy. On those terms, the 2009 India is administered by mindsets that predate independence.

Neither murder nor the practice of torture has been attempted to be prevented in India. Instead, the governments so far have denied the existence of these state sponsored evil and further promoted it, both openly and clandestinely.

Absoluteness of arbitrary authority, to kill or torture persons with impunity, has been retained and preserved with the law enforcement agencies, so that politicians and bureaucrats could continue using the law enforcement agencies to silence the populace. The resistance to root-out this cancer need no further reference other than the proposed legislation against torture. The draft bill could be viewed here.

The practice of torture and the alarming number of extrajudicial executions remain the central deficit affecting the rule of law and democracy in India. Each day ahead, failing to address this cancer that has isolated the populace from the government will, in the coming years, result in a complete failure of law and order in the country.

August 15 must be an occasion for the government and the civil society to revisit the promises the founding fathers of the nation have resolved to realise 62 years before. Failing to do so will not only push the nation into chaos, but will also water the seeds of disintegration of a country that has paid a heavy price for its freedom six decades ago.

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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