Claim of Abuse in Police Custody Puts Attention on Authorities

[image] Garima Jain/TehelkaSoni Sori was arrested in New Delhi on charges of being a Maoist. In an open letter to the lawyer representing her in the Supreme Court, Ms. Sori says she was sexually assaulted while in custody.

SAMELI, India—Soni Sori, a mother of three and teacher in her forest village, was arrested in 2011, accused of aiding leftist rebels who are fighting a war against the Indian government in a wide swath of the country,

Ms. Sori alleges that soon after her arrest, a police superintendent at the local police station ordered her stripped and junior officers inserted hard objects into her body until she blacked out from the pain.

Lawyers for Ms. Sori then filed a petition in India’s Supreme Court seeking an independent medical examination of their client. Two weeks later, the court ordered such a test and doctors found three stones in her body.

In an open letter to the lawyer representing her in the Supreme Court, Ms. Sori made the allegations of sexual assault in custody. Police have denied the allegations.

[image] Shailendra Pandey/TehelkaSoni Sori, accused of aiding leftist rebels, at a New Delhi court in 2011. She has alleged assault in custody.

Anger After a Rape

Dec. 16 A student is raped on a bus in New Delhi

Dec. 22 Protesters calling for harsher punishments for rapists clash with police.

Dec. 23 A panel headed by former Chief Justice J.S. Verma is appointed to suggest law changes to reduce sexual assault.

Dec 29 Bus rape victim dies

Jan. 23 Panel recommends changing law that shields armed forces from prosecution for rape in conflict areas; suggests up to 10-year prison terms for senior officers who allow rape to occur on their watch.

Feb. 3–indian president passes ordinance that would increase maximum penalty for rape to death from life imprisonment but ignores verma recommendation on removing barriers for trying armed forces personnel for rape.

WSJ reporting

The Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether to allow a special investigation of Ms. Sori’s allegations. Meanwhile, she remains in jail in the state of Chhattisgarh.

Indian authorities are attempting to contain public anger over the prevalence of sexual assault in Indian society—a problem in focus since the rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in New Delhi in December.

But human-rights groups say that efforts to safeguard female safety can’t succeed unless the issue of rape and other sexual assault of women while in police or military custody is dealt with aggressively.

A report last month by a panel headed by former Indian Chief Justice J.S. Verma, convened by India’s government to look at strengthening rape and other laws related to sexual assault and harassment, singled out rape in custody as a major problem. The report recommended prison terms of up to 10 years for police and military commanding officers who fail to stop rape and sexual assault occurring in custody on their watch. It also said India should review laws that protect security personnel from prosecution for rape while serving in conflict areas.

“This is why the Verma commission is so important. It’s looked on the state as a perpetrator not just a protector,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, who heads the Indian operations of New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The problem, though, will be uncovering instances of sexual assault in custody. Many cases go unreported, human-rights groups say.

There were only nine cases involving custodial-rape accusations awaiting trial at the start of 2011 out of 95,065 total cases of rape, according to National Crime Records Bureau statistics. Of those, eight were pending at the end of the year and one case ended in an acquittal of the accused rapist. There were no convictions.

Efforts to stop custodial rape in the past have failed. In 1972, in the western state of Maharashtra, a 16-year-old tribal girl was allegedly raped in a police station after her family had gone there to register an unrelated complaint. Her family lodged a criminal complaint against two officers. The Supreme Court eventually threw out the case, saying the girl’s body bore no outward signs of rape.

The ruling sparked protests by women’s groups across the country. Four law professors wrote an open letter of complaint to the chief justice about the ruling.

The movement led to amendments, in 1983, to the criminal law that dealt with rape. The changes included a new category of rape for offenses committed when a victim is in custody of the state. In such a situation, the law said a court should presume a woman who says she didn’t consent is telling the truth. Previously, the law was silent on the matter of rape in detention.

Still, women’s groups say such legislation hasn’t stopped custodial rape occurring in remote rural areas and in parts of the country where the military is covered by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, legislation which shields security personnel from prosecution in areas of armed conflict.

In 2004 in Manipur, a northeastern state where a low-grade separatist conflict has simmered for decades, a 32-year-old woman was allegedly raped and killed by soldiers. After protests, the state government ordered a probe but none of the alleged perpetrators faced trial, shielded by the army-immunity act.

The Verma committee, in its report last month, said India should consider reforming the act, a promise made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government but opposed by the army.

“Sexual violence against women by members of the armed forces or uniformed personnel must be brought under the purview of ordinary criminal law,” the report said.

Ms. Sori’s case has reignited the debate about custodial assault. Human-rights groups say they don’t know whether her allegations are true but criticize the government for so far failing to order an independent inquiry. “Do you only accept the police version?” asked Ms. Ganguly of Human Rights Watch. “There has been no independent investigation so far. It suggests that as a state we have no desire to view with sympathy the allegations of a woman.”Ms. Sori and her nephew have denied the charges. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal two years ago, before her arrest, Ms. Sori painted a picture of being caught between two warring sides. Police had tried to recruit her nephew, who later was kidnapped by Maoists for cooperating with Indian authorities, before being released, she said.

Ms. Sori’s home district is at the center of the battle that has raged since the 1960s between Maoist rebels claiming to be fighting for the rights of locals and the Indian government.

In 2011, police arrested Ms. Sori’s nephew for allegedly collecting protection money for Maoists. Police allege Ms. Sori also was involved but had escaped. She later was arrested in New Delhi and transferred to Chhattisgarh.

On Oct. 8, 2011, Ms. Sori claims in documents filed with the Supreme Court that Ankit Garg, a police superintendent in Chhattisgarh, ordered junior officers to molest her, including pushing hard objects into her body.

Mr. Garg, the police superintendent, denied the allegations against him and in an interview he disputed as impossible the finding that inserted stones had stayed in Ms. Sori’s body for 16 days. A year ago, police awarded Mr. Garg a medal for acts of bravery during an earlier counterinsurgency operation against Maoists. Rajesh Kukreja, a senior police official in Dantewada, the district where Ms. Sori’s village is located, claimed she had concocted the story of abuse. “It is an act of manipulation to discredit [the police] and to divert the attention of the investigating agency,” he said.

Two days later, Ms. Sori didn’t show up for a local court hearing, and state authorities said she had slipped in the bathroom and injured herself, according to court documents.

At the request of Ms. Sori’s lawyers, the Supreme Court sent her two weeks later to be examined at a hospital in the much larger city of Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal state. Doctors there reported finding the stones inside her, according to a medical report filed in court.

Ms. Sori’s lawyer, Amiy Shukla, said the suggestion Ms. Sori had herself inserted the stones is false and her allegations would hold if the Supreme Court ordered an investigation.


A version of this article appeared February 15, 2013, on page A12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Rape Debate Widens in India.