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Report No. 152

Custodial Crimes

Chapter 1


1.1. There is a deep concern at the growing incidence of custodial crimes occurring in different parts of our country. Complaints of abuse of power, and torture of suspects in custody by the police and other law enforcing agencies having power to detain a person for interrogation in connection with investigation of an offence are, on rise.

Of late, such complaints have assumed alarming dimensions projecting the incidence of torture, assault, injury, extortion, sexual exploitation and death in custody. Compared with other crimes, custodial crimes are particularly heinous and revolting as they reflect betrayal of custodial trust by a public servant against the defenceless citizen. Custodial crimes violate law; human dignity and human rights.

1.2. Despite constitutional and statutory provisions safeguarding the liberty and the life of an individual, the growing incidence of custodial torture and death have become a disturbing factor in the society. It is distressing to find the gory tales of dehumanising torture, assault and death in the custody of police almost in every morning newspaper. The alarming rise in custodial crimes has picked the conscience of every section of society and it has evoked public outcry against the law enforcing agencies, especially the police and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and Enforcement Directorate.

The Supreme Court has expressed its deep concern on the recurrence of custodial crimes on more than one occasion. While dismissing the appeal of an Assistant Sub-Inspector of Police, who was sentenced to life imprisonment by the courts below, for torturing a person to death, in the police custody in connection with the interrogation of an offence of theft committed in a police officer's house, the Court expressed its distress and anguish in these words:

"We are deeply disturbed by the diabolical recurrence of police torture resulting in a terrible scare in the minds of common citizens that their lives and liberty are under a new peril when the guardians of law gore human rights to death.... Police lock-ups, if reports in newspapers have a streak of credence, are becoming awesome cells. This development is disastrous to our human right awareness and humanist constitutional order."1

1. Raghubir Singh v. State of Haryana, (1980) 3 SCC 17: AIR 1980 SC 1087.

1.3. No reliable or authentic statistics are available regarding the custodial crimes as most of the incidents of torture are not recorded. Incidents of torture and injury in urban areas is brought to public notice by the media, while large number of such incidents occurring in rural areas of our vast country, remain unnoticed. In this state of affairs, it is difficult to pin-point the exact number of incidents of torture and death in custody. According to the Amnesty International's Report for the year 1993, 415 persons died in custody throughout India during the period 1985 to 1993.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 289 rapes and 274 deaths in police custody were reported from all over the country during 1990 to 19931. A report published in a leading newspaper indicates that 265 incidents of custodial deaths occurred during 1990-19932. There is no guarantee as to the correctness of these figures, but this is quite evident that the incidents of torture and death in custody have assumed alarming proportions which is affecting the credibility of our system of criminal justice and bringing the State to disrepute.

1. Letter No. 205/1/94-STAT/NCRB, dated 15-6-1994 of National Crime Records Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India.

2. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the death of Sri U. Narasimha in the Police Custody at Sanjeeva Reddy Nagar Police Station, Hyderabad on 10-7-1986, Government of Andhra Pradesh (1986); Report of the Commission of Inquinj on the death of Sri T. Murlidharan at Town Police Station, Vijayawada, on 17-9-1986 (Government of Andhra Pradesh, 1987); Report of the Inquiry Commission on the death of Dadugula Sankuriah in the Outpost of Yelleswaram on 26-8-1985, (Government of Andhra Pradesh, 1986); Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the death of Sri Machela Anjiah while in the Police Custody at Thungathurthi on 6-9-1986, (Government of Andhra Pradesh).

1.4. The problem of custodial crimes has been the subject-matter of debate in the media and various fora in our country and even in international fora. National as well as international agencies have indicated our system for the violation of human rights in the wake of reports of custodial torture and deaths. In September, 1992 the Central Government convened a Chief Ministers' Conference to discuss the violations of human rights, and it is reported that the question of custodial crimes was discussed therein. The decisions taken at the Conference are not available although after the Conference, the Central Government constituted the National Human Rights Commission to deal with the violations of human rights.

1.5. Generally, the victums of custodial crimes, torture, injury or death belong to weaker sections of society. The poor, the downtrodden and the ignorant with little, or no political or financial power, are unable to protect their interests. The affluent members of the society are generally not subjected to torture as the Police is afraid of their resources as such resourceful persons immediately approach higher authorities and courts to regain their freedom.

Members of the weaker or poorer sections of society, are arrested informally and kept in police custody for days together without any entry of such arrests in the police records. During the informal detention they are subjected to torture, which at times results in death. In the event of death in custody, the body of the deceased is disposed of stealthily or thrown to a public place making out a case of suicide or accident. Records are manipulated to shield the police personnel.

The relatives or friends of the victim are unable to seek protection of law on account of their poverty, ignorance and illiteracy. But even if some voluntary organisations take up their case or public interest litigation is initiated against the erring public officers, no effective or speedy remedy is available to them, as a result of which erring public officers go scot-free. This situation gives rise to a belief that the laws' protection is meant for the rich and not for the poor.

If the incidents of custodial crimes are not controlled or eliminated, the Constitution, the law, and the State would have no meaning to the people which may ultimately lead to anarchy de-stabilising the society. Justice Brande is of U.S. Supreme Court looked upon Government "as the potent and omnipresent teacher (that) teaches the whole people by its example. If the Government becomes a law breaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to be come a law unto himself". Such a situation cannot be permitted to exist in a civilsed society.

1.6. Maintenance of law and order is of prime importance to any Government. Investigation of crime and apprehension of an offender is extremely necessary, to ensure peace and order. For the implementation of laws and maintenance of law and order, police and other law enforcing agencies are necessary, but no civilised country can permit the use of torture and third degree methods during interrogation and investigation of an offence.

The police and other Governmental agencies, while enforcing the law, are required to respect the constitutional commitment to the individual's fundamental rights. The statutory laws including the Criminal Procedure Code and the Indian Evidence Act provide procedure to safeguard to interest of a suspect or an accused, but in actual practice, those provisions as violated.

The existing law is inadequate and ineffective in dealing with the custodial crimes and in many cases the erring officers go scot-free on account of the complainant's inability to prove the case against them. The Supreme Court has adversely commented upon the inadequate statutory provisions dealing with the custodial crimes in India and it has made several suggestions for reforms in the existing laws.

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