(New York) – The Indian government should prosecute members of the security forces for recent high-profile cases of torture, to send a message that such practices will no longer be tolerated, Human Rights Watch said today.
Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers, long implicated in torture and extrajudicial killings near the border with Bangladesh, were captured in a video posted on YouTube brutally beating a Bangladeshi national caught smuggling cattle in West Bengal state. And the Indian government has awarded a medal to a police superintendant alleged to have ordered the torture and sexual assault of a female schoolteacher in Chhattisgarh state, instead of investigating him.
“These horrific images of torture on video show what rights groups have long documented: that India’s Border Security Force is out of control,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Indian government is well aware of killings and torture at the border, but has never prosecuted the troops responsible. This video provides a clear test case of whether the security forces are above the law in India.”
In December 2010, Human Rights Watch, together with Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), a Kolkatta-based nongovernmental organization that posted the video, and Dhaka-based Odhikar, published “‘Trigger Happy’: Excessive Use of Force by Indian Troops at the Bangladesh Border.” This report documented numerous cases of indiscriminate use of force, arbitrary detention, torture, and killings by the BSF, and highlighted the failure of the Indian government to conduct adequate investigations or prosecute troops responsible for abuses. It showed that the BSF routinely abuses both Bangladeshi and Indian nationals residing in the border area. After the report’s release, the Indian government ordered an end to the use of lethal force cease except in cases of self-defense. While the number of killings decreased, allegations of killings and torture have continued.
The video, reportedly filmed by a BSF soldier, shows members of the BSF’s 105th Battalion stripping a man, a Bangladeshi national later identified as Habibur Rahman Sheikh, tying him up and beating him, while laughing and engaging in verbal abuse. BSF personnel apparently caught Sheikh when he was engaged in smuggling cattle from India into Bangladesh. Instead of handing him over to the police as required by Indian law, they illegally detained and tortured him and then left him to make his way back home.
After MASUM released the video to local news channels, the BSF suspended eight soldiers – Sandip Kumar, Dhananjay Roy, Sunil Kumar Yadav, Suresh Chandra, Anand Kumar, Victor, Amarjyoti, and VirendraTiwari – and ordered an inquiry. However, despite clear evidence of abuse, to date no criminal charges have been filed against any soldiers.
“Whenever offenses attributed to the BSF occur, its leadership insists that there will be an internal inquiry and action taken,” said Ganguly. “But secret proceedings and suspensions or transfers won’t end the abuses. Torture is a serious crime that should be prosecuted in the courts.”
Many people routinely move back and forth across the Indian-Bangladeshi border to visit relatives, buy supplies, and look for jobs. Some engage in criminal activities, such as smuggling. The BSF is charged with intercepting illegal activities, especially narcotics smuggling, human trafficking for sex work, and transporting fake currency and explosives. It is also charged with protecting against violent attacks by militant groups.
The failure of the Indian government to prosecute authorities responsible for torture extends to all of the security forces, Human Rights Watch said. In another recent disturbing incident, Soni Sori, a schoolteacher in Chhattisgarh state, alleged that she was tortured and sexually assaulted by Chhattisgarh state police while in custody in October 2011. After her arrest as a suspected Maoist supporter, a criminal court in Chhattisgarh state handed her over to police custody for interrogation despite her pleas that she feared for her safety and life. Sori alleges that Ankit Garg, then-superintendent of police for Dantewada district, ordered the torture and sexual assault. The Indian Supreme Court ordered Sori’s transfer to the Kolkata medical college hospital for an independent medical examination. In November 2011, the examination report corroborated Sori’s allegations of physical abuse.
To date, the Indian authorities have not initiated any inquiry or criminal action against the police officers implicated. Instead of investigating the case, on Republic Day, January 26, 2012, the president of India, Pratibha Patil, presented Ankit Garg with a police medal for gallantry. The medal drew widespread condemnation.
The Indian government announced, in March 2011, a rape compensation package for all sexual assault victims, but even basic follow-up reproductive and sexual health services have yet to be made available to survivors like Soni Sori. One of her lawyers told Human Rights Watch that Sori, who is detained in Raipur central jail in Chhattisgarh, has not received any follow-up reproductive and sexual health care. Her hemoglobin count has dropped considerably and she has complained of reproductive health problems but her lawyer is concerned that she will not receive adequate medical care without obstruction by the Chhattisgarh police. During her stay at the Raipur medical college hospital for medical examination and treatment in October, the Chhattisgarh police forced the doctors to remove her intravenous drip, refusing to let her stay in the hospital.
“Soni Sori’s case epitomizes the callousness with which victims of torture are treated in India,” Ganguly said. “The Indian government shamefully presents a trophy to someone implicated in torture, while doctors cannot even treat a torture survivor without police obstruction.”
Human Rights Watch called upon the Indian government to ratify the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and to enact the Prevention of Torture bill, which is currently awaiting cabinet approval and before it is voted on by the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament. The law should override all provisions of Indian law that allow government officials immunity from prosecution for human rights violations. It should also ensure that adequate time is given for victims to be able to file complaints, and that all forms of inhuman and degrading treatment are brought under the purview of the law.
“The BSF, the police, and other members of the security forces operate with impunity throughout India,” said Ganguly. “When will the government in Delhi wake up and act to end torture and other human rights abuses?”