Lawyer and human rights activist Vrinda Grover tells Kanu Sarda that policemen concerned are solely responsible for custody deaths and that death sentence, not higher amount of fine or compensation, can act as a deterrent.In the past five months, the number of complaints to NHRC pertaining to custodial deaths has increased. Who do you think is to be blamed for this?Whenever a person is under custody, it is the duty of the police officer concerned under whom the person was lodged in jail. In case any mishap happens with the arrested person, it is none other than the police officer who should be blamed for the death.
Despite several recommendations from the Law Commission of India as well as directives from the Supreme Court on custodial deaths, nothing seems to be moving when we see the figures. What is your take on that?
Our laws enforcement agencies and the apex court have repeatedly echoed to have in place stricter laws, not just to prevent custodial deaths but also to ensure that they (police officers concerned) are held accountable for deaths in custody. But things will remain unchanged until and unless we make amendments in Section 114 (B) of the Indian Evidence Act, which will ensure that if a person in police custody sustains injuries, it will be presumed that those injuries have been inflicted by the police and the burden of proof shall lie on the authority concerned to explain such injury.
The amount of compensation awarded by the NHRC in custodial deaths is increasing. Do you think this can act as any kind of deterrent?
It is a good effort on part of the NHRC to award compensation, but this is not acting as a deterrent for police officers responsible for custodial deaths. An amendment to Section 357B should be incorporated for the payment of compensation, in addition to payment of fine provided in the Indian Penal Code. Also, the commission needs to ensure every case reaches its logical conclusion by pursuing the prosecution of the accused.
A court in Kerala recently awarded death penalty to two policemen in a custody death case. Do you think death penalty will be a deterrent?
Yes, definitely. This is actually a rare occurrence wherein two serving police personnel were awarded death sentence by a CBI court in Thiruvananthapuram in the case of a scrap metal shop worker’s death — or murder, as the court ruled — in custody. It was a victory of the mother who had fought for justice for her son since 2005. It’s high time police in India learnt that beating suspects to extract confessions is unacceptable and they can be prosecuted for torture of the accused in custody.
Overcrowding of jails is another issue in India. What do you think is the solution?
A large number of prisoners in Indian jails are undertrials. Though the fundamental rights under the Constitution presume undertrials innocent till proved guilty, but our system works on the contrary. The SC has asked all high courts to set up undertrial review committee and has also said that if a person has completed half of his/her sentence, then he/she should be released. In case an undertrial cannot afford the surety amount, he/she should be released on personal bonds.