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Custodial deaths: NHRC "unwilling" to recommend prosecution of police officers despite prima facie evidence

By Rajiv Shah
A high-profile report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Bound by Brotherhood: India’s Failure to End Killings in Police Custody”, has accused the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) for having “failed to ensure accountability in custodial deaths” in India.
Based on field research and interviews conducted from April 2015 to April 2016, interviewing 45 witnesses and family members of victims of custodial death, and speaking to 25 lawyers, civil society activists and journalists, the report states,” A major weakness of NHRC has been its unwillingness to recommend prosecution of police officers, even when there is prima facie evidence that officers have committed a criminal offense.”
Pointing out that the NHRC “typically recommends only interim relief or compensation for victims”, the report, based on interviews conducted in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Uttar Pradesh, and in New Delhi and Mumbai, says, “Delays in investigations, transfer of cases to ill-equipped state human rights commissions, and lack of updates to complainants are other concerns.”
This is happening, according to HRW, despite the fact that “police are required to report every such death to the NHRC within 24 hours, and the commission is tasked with inquiring into all complaints that deal with violations of human rights or negligence in the prevention of such violation by a public servant.”
Quoting an NHRC official, HRW says, “The investigation department rarely conducted ‘spot inquiries’, or their own independent investigations, relying instead on reviews of documents sent by the police or administrative authorities.”
HRW cites NHRC’s April 2010 notification to state governments, which says that in cases of custodial deaths where no foul play was alleged, it was not mandatory for the inquiry to be conducted by a judicial magistrate, because victims’ families are often unable to challenge police accounts of deaths in custody.
HRW regrets, NGOs have to “constant follow-up and pressure to induce NHRC to take concrete steps in specific cases”, adding, “Lack of adequate staffing means there are significant delays in addressing complaints”, which “often wait months or even years before they receive any updates on their cases.”
Quoting the case of Maharashtra’s Agnelo Valdaris, who died in April 2014, HRW says, while NHRC “successfully pressured Maharashtra state authorities to send documents related to his death”, yet, “over two years after his death and a year after the commission received the documents, it had yet to pass a final order in the case.”
Similarly, in the 2014 case of Syed Mohammed of Tamil Nadu, says HRW, “NHRC directed the director general of investigations to collect facts and reports within eight weeks, but over two years later, no updates were available.”
Then, HRW reports, in the January 2015 case of Obaidur Rahman of West Bengal, “after receiving a complaint from the rights group MASUM, NHRC asked its investigation department to look into the matter but nearly two years later, there was no further update.”
In yet another case, NHRC recommended that the government of Andhra Pradesh state pay Rs 500,000 a victim, B Janardhan’s next of kin, “but did not recommend the perpetrators be prosecuted”.
“Similarly”, it added, NHRC recommended Rs 300,000 as compensation to the widow of another victim, Safikul Haque, asking the chief secretary of West Bengal to take “corrective steps in light of the judicial inquiry findings, but then closed the case in January 2015 without making any specific recommendations regarding prosecution of accused police officials”.
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