Shibu Thomas

More than 330 persons have died in police custody across Maharashtra in the 15 years since 1999, but not a single policeman has been convicted for the deaths so far. The state’s dismal record on custodial deaths has come back into sharp focus after the deaths of two young men in Mumbai in April this year.According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 1,418 custodial deaths took place in India between 1999 and 2013, and around 23% of these (or 333) were reported from Maharashtra. For the majority of the 15 years, the state topped the custodial death charts.

Reay Road resident Leonard Valdaris, whose son died in the Wadala railway police’s custody in April, submitted a petition through advocate Yug Chaudhry, where he contrasted the custodial death figures to the state’s crime rate. He pointed out that Maharashtra is ranked 19th in the crime rate chart, contributing 8.5% of the total cognizable crimes committed in India.

“Compared to the rest of the country, Maharashtra is rich, well developed, well educated, industrialized and quite law abiding. And yet, as per the records maintained by the National Crime Records Bureau, Maharashtra has had one of the highest number of custodial deaths in the country,“ the petition said.

The NCRB numbers reveal that Maharashtra is lax when it comes to investigating such crimes against its law-enforcers. Only four judicial inquiries and 59 magisterial inquiries were conducted and 43 FIRs registered against cops between 1999 and 2013. While chargesheets were filed against 19 policemen, there were zero convictions. This squares off poorly with the national figures, where 28 policemen were convicted for custodial deaths.

It is statistics like these that made a Bombay high court division bench of Justices V M Kanade and P D Kode ask the state government and the police: “Why are cases of custodial killings on the rise? Why assault a boy in his 20s in such a brutal manner? You have a right to arrest an accused. You have a right to prosecute him.
But you have no right to take the life of a person.“

In 1997 India signed the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but failed to ratify it. A proposed law, Prevention of Torture Bill, is pending before the Parliament. The Supreme Court has laid down procedures to be followed during the arrest of a person, including his production before a magistrate within 24 hours of arrest. Legal experts however maintain that in many instances the accused is detained before he is formally shown as arrested, so that the police can get a confession out of him.

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