19/12/2016 9:01 AM IST | Updated 19/12/2016 9:06 AM IST

At Least 591 People Have Died In Police Custody In India Since 2010: Human Rights Watch

97 of these deaths were in 2015 alone.

Mukesh Gupta / Reuters
Representative photo.

On the afternoon of 2 December, 2012, 40-year-old Julfar Shaikh was rushed to the casualty ward of a hospital in Mumbai after he collapsed in police custody. Twenty-five minutes later, he was pronounced dead. An autopsy would later reveal that he had died of 22 grievous injuries to his body, including a skull fracture--and not of "meningitis" as claimed by Dharavi police.

"Since he was a hard core criminal, he refused to give any information," a police constable later testified in court during the investigation of the custodial death. "It was essential to get that information from him, that's why [the police] used the "truth seeking" belt and beat him up in front of me. He was so weak after the beating that when he got up to drink water, he was dizzy with pain and collapsed against the window, breaking his lower jaw."

Since 2010, at least 591 people have died in police custody in India, reported the Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Monday. In the last year alone, this number was 97. The police registered cases against fellow cops in only about a third of these deaths. More than two-thirds of these deaths occurred when the investigating officers did not produce those taken into custody in front of a magistrate within 24 hours of arrest. The international non-profit human rights organisation's dozens of interviews with family members of victims' show that legal procedures were not followed, resulting in deaths of suspects who, at times, weren't even formally charged of crimes, let alone be tried or convicted under law.

The "truth-seeking" belt, or "satyashodhak patta" the constable in Shaikh's case referred to is a repurposed belt from a flour mill that is fitted with a wooden handle and allegedly used to beat suspects in police custody to extract a "confession" from them, a Mid-day investigation found. According to the report, it is about 3.5-4 feet long, and can be found in every police station in Mumbai. Shaikh is believed to have been beaten with such a belt, causing injuries in his skull, neck, arms, back, buttocks, shins, feet. He was in custody for three days in a fake currency case when he died without a trial or conviction.

"He was so weak after the beating that when he got up to drink water, he was dizzy with pain and collapsed against the window, breaking his lower jaw."Mumbai police officer in court

Following a CBI investigation into the death, two police officers have been booked for culpable homicide, but India has a poor rate of convicting such cops. The HRW report found that police's callous disregard for the procedure of arrests, and little fear of prosecution has allowed such deaths to recur across the country.

"Police in India will learn that beating suspects to confess is unacceptable only after officers are prosecuted for torture," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at HRW said in an emailed press release. "Our research shows that too often, the police officers investigating deaths in custody are more concerned about shielding their colleagues than bringing those responsible to justice."

Police are required by law under the Code of Criminal Procedure to make a memo of an arrest signed by independent witnesses and immediately send the suspect for medical examination so that there is a record of their pre-existing injuries, if any. However, police can frequently circumvent these rules by showing arrest dates days after the suspect is actually taken into custody. Sometimes these crimes allegedly committed by the suspects is never proven. Essentially, these police beatings can take place on a whim or mere suspicion of the police, many times to be proven false.

In Shaikh's case, he died before he could even fight his arrest in court.

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