Deaths in Custody in India Highlight Police Torture

India’s Madras High Court on Tuesday said there is sufficient evidence to register a case of murder against police officials who allegedly tortured a father and son to death while in custody. The ruling was based on the men’s injuries, as well as the judicial magistrate’s inquiry report.

On June 19, police in Tamil Nadu state detained P. Jayaraj, 60, and his son J. Fenix, 31, allegedly for keeping their mobile phone shop open longer than allowed under Covid-19 lockdown rules. Four days later, both were dead.

Deaths in custody are unfortunately not isolated incidents. Police in India routinely use torture and flout arrest procedures with little or no accountability. The magistrate investigating the recent deaths reported that the police did not cooperate during his inquiry, insulted him, and destroyed evidence.

Police in India must take people who are arrested for a medical examination, and doctors are required to list any pre-existing injuries, because new wounds are evidence of police abuse in custody. Additionally, every person arrested must be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours. The magistrates then inspect arrest-related documents and ensure the well-being of suspects by questioning them.

Both Jayaraj and Fenix were taken for a medical examination on June 20 and then presented before a magistrate. Witnesses said they were bleeding after police officers allegedly beat, tortured, and sexually assaulted them the night before. Yet the magistrate did not question the detainees and transferred them to judicial custody – even though the law mandates, and the Supreme Court has said, that people should only be detained for offenses punishable by up to seven years in prison when it is necessary. The Supreme Court has also issued directives to decongest prisons to stem the spread of Covid-19.

The deaths of Jayaraj and Fenix happened soon after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in the United States, igniting protests against police use of excessive force against Black people. It has prompted calls for police reform in India as well, including meaningful steps to ensure accountability. India should ratify the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and strictly enforce laws and guidelines on arrest and detention set out in the Code of Criminal Procedure.