Breaking bad: Torture and violence in police custody is real

Rights activists worry that instances of police breaking the arms or legs of suspects during interrogation is on the rise. While former cops say the practice, termed maavu kattu vaithiyam or ‘plaster

Published: 18th August 2019 06:33 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th August 2019 06:33 AM   |  A+A-


Express News Service

CHENNAI: On the evening of July 23, six policemen in mufti dragged 24-year-old Sami (name changed) out of his house. “It took me some time to even understand what was happening. All I could hear was my mother begging the men to leave me as the men dragged me out by the collar,” Sami told Express.“It was only after they put me in a van and started driving that I realised they were policemen,” Sami said. According to him he was transported to a police station at least 30km from his home. Once there, the maavu kattu vaithiyam or plaster of paris treatment (as People’s Watch founder Henri Tiphange terms it) began.

“First they hit me with the lathi and then put bricks on my arms and blindfolded me. Two men held my arms as another policeman was hit my hands with an iron rod. The pain was excruciating but they wouldn’t stop,” he said.“This continued for the whole night but for when they took breaks. I do not know how many of them hit me,” he said.

The next day, as Sami was being taken to the hospital, he says he was told that when he was produced at court, he should tell the magistrate he had fallen off the Maduravoyal bridge while trying to escape from police. One of Sami’s arms was fractured that night. It is now in a plaster of paris cast -- the result of maavu kattu vaithiyam. Sami’s experience is not new. 

On January 4, 2018, videos of youngsters and pillion riders on motorbikes dragging police barricades on Kamarajar Salai and Gandhi Mandapam Road at Kotturpuram in Chennai went viral. A few days later, the boys were arrested after which it was learnt that all of them had sustained fractures in their hands. Police claimed they’d all slipped in the bathroom.

There seem to be two main causes for injuries sustained by such suspects — the suspect fell off a bridge while attempting to escape police or the suspect slipped in the bathroom. The issue has been in the spotlight because, in recent weeks, the photographs of suspects in police custody nursing identical bandages and casts on their arms and legs have gone viral. The “slipped in the bathroom” excuse has been deployed so often that A Bramma, an advocate in Tirunelveli, recently filed a petition under the Right to Information (RTI) Act asking details of how bathrooms in police stations were being cleaned and what action was taken against police officials for poor maintenance of such bathrooms. 

Victims immobilised
Meanwhile, a government doctor seeking anonymity said in cases where the police brought a suspect for check up, “We find they suffer fractures where the middle portion of the ulna is broken, classically by being hit on the inside of the forearm. They even fracture the leg. In both cases, the limbs have to be immobilised for several weeks.”

Police, however, attribute such injuries — often sustained by suspects involved in crimes ranging in severity from public nuisance to murder — to mere coincidence. After all, the suspects appear to tell the same stories as the police. “Suspects go with the stories as they fear the police and know they have to be in the custody of the same cops till they go till Puzhal, “ said Sudhan, a Madras High Court advocate. “But, it is shocking that members of the State Human Rights Commission, who read such news reports everyday still turn a blind eye. It is their duty to take suo moto cognizance and ensure the safety of the suspect,” he said. 

‘Necessary action’
Police, however, justify their actions as necessary. “No accused or suspect will confess to his crime immediately. Earlier, third degree torture was used. Now, after human rights activists’ interventions and issuing of strict warnings, we do not inflict third degree torture. But, if a chain snatcher is arrested and is released on bail, he will again indulge in a similar crime to pay the advocate fees. Since there is a delay in the trial beginning, these suspects continue to indulge in criminal activities. Hence, if their arms are injured at least they will not be able to do anything,” a police officer said.

Seconding this, a retired IPS officer said, “Such measures taken by the police are only in the best interest of the public. This will send a message to the other suspects in the locality and crime is expected to reduce,” the officer claimed. Indeed, given that cases that go to court take so long to reach a conclusion, some may wonder why the police should not dole out some “instant justice”. 

Raju, another Madras HC advocate, explains one of the problems: What if the police have caught an innocent person by mistake?  “In some cases, the police have arrested the wrong person, and broken the person’s arms. Only when the person has been released on bail, have the police realised they had the wrong person. By that time, it is too late,” Raju pointed out. Further, the practice is a violation of Supreme Court guidelines, subverts the entire justice system and denies the rights of the accused. 

Tiphagne said it was simply an extension of police encounters. “These days, there are fewer criminals involved in crime — it is mostly youngsters. Heinous crimes are on the decline and so an encounter is not an option for police. So instead, they are breaking arms and legs,” he said. Also, Raju pointed out that the police could ensure that trials began quickly simply by filing chargesheets quickly. 

Tiphagne said that a torture prevention act could help reduce such violence. “Police should be booked under criminal laws for such violence. It is sad that magistrates buy these stories,” he said. “Magistrates fail to understand that they are the first protectors as they meet the accused at the time of remand and if they are careless, biased and prejudiced against criminals and support policemen, the entire rule of law breaks there,” he explained. Further, according to Section 12 in The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, legal services should be provided to persons in custody, Tiphagne said, adding that Legal Services Authorities and SHRC should take suo moto cognizance of such cases and question the police.

Pointing put that the Supreme Court has clearly said that police did not have the right to inflict any type of violence and injury on a person, unless in self defence, V Suresh, national secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties said, “It’s high time that if the magistrate finds the suspect is unsafe and injured, the magistrate sends them to a government hospital for examination. Doctors there should meet the suspect privately, without the police, ask if they were tortured,” he said.

Former Madras HC judge, Justice K Chandru, agreed that the magistrate had the responsibility to protect the rights of the suspect and gave an example from his own career. “In Ramanathapuram, a woman was arrested for a dowry offence. She was not asked if she was  suffering from any illness, nor were her relatives informed she was in custody. Later in the court, she told the magistrate that she had chest pains and was referred to the government hospital.

The advocate filed a petition stating that some of the D K Basu guidelines were violated. This was proved and this case came to me. I said this could amount to contempt on the part of the woman inspector. But, I told her to apologise to the woman, who was arrested... These are small steps that we can take to avoid such behaviour by the police,” he said.

‘Cops supported by public’
Police have started following a cinematic style, Sudhan, a High Court advocate charged. “They are supported by the public which believes in instant justice. In the case of a chain snatching, for instance, if the police cause injury to the suspect the victim is happy. She believes the police has acted swiftly. This may be one of the reasons why the practice continues.”

innocent person can be affected
Raju, another Madras HC advocate, explains one of the problems: What if the police have caught an innocent person by mistake?  “In some cases, the police have arrested the wrong 
person, and broken the person’s arms. Only when the person has been released on bail, have the police realised they had the wrong person. By that time it is too late for the court to intervene,” Raju pointed out

Some of the DK Basu guidelines
 The police personnel carrying out the arrest and handling the interrogation of arrestee should bear clear identification
 The police officer carrying out the arrest shall prepare a memo of arrest at the time of arrest and such memo shall be attested by at least one witness. It shall also be counter signed by the arrestee and shall contain the time and date of arrest
 A person who has been arrested or detained and is being held in custody in a police station or interrogation centre or other lock up, shall be entitled to have one friend or relative or other person known to him or having interest in his welfare being informed, as soon as practicable
 The arrestee should be subjected to medical examination by the trained doctor every 48 hours during his detention 
 The arrestee may be permitted to meet his lawyer during interrogation, though not throughout the interrogation


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