NEWS
09/07/2019 12:15 PM IST | Updated 09/07/2019 3:01 PM IST

Kerala Custodial Death Lays Bare Glaring Abuse Of Power By Police

Rajkumar’s killing — reportedly the eighth custodial death in the state since May 2016, when the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government came to power — has set off a political storm in Kerala.

Reuters File Photo/Representative image

When Mammootty-starrer Unda released in Kerala last month, many reviews highlighted the rare sensitivity with which it portrayed the much-maligned figure of the macho policeman. In the movie, the bunch of policemen sent on election duty to Chhattisgarh don’t want to be heroes, they just want to return home in one piece. 

Ironically, even as the film was playing in theatres, headlines in Kerala were dominated by that other kind of cop, one more familiar to fans of Suresh Gopi’s movies, where the policeman is only too happy to let his fists do the talking. The reason: the torture and killing of 49-year-old Rajkumar, an Idukki-based private financier accused of fraud, in police custody.

On Monday, two absconding policemen, both charged with murder in the case, were arrested by the Crime Branch, taking the total number of arrests to four.

Rajkumar’s killing — reportedly the eighth custodial death in the state since May 2016, when the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government came to power — has set off a political storm, with the Congress and the BJP accusing the Left government of shielding the accused. The chief minister’s announcement of a judicial commission enquiry hasn’t put out any fires either, as the dead man’s family insist that he was innocent and wasn’t capable of scamming people out of their money. 

“He had studied only till Class IX and, until recently, worked in a tea plantation. How can such a man get the resources to operate a multi-crore financial fraud as alleged by the police? I have not even wild guesses on his exact financial sources. He never revealed anything to me or our two children,’’ said Vijaya, Rajkumar’s wife, who travelled to Thiruvananthapuram last week to meet the chief minister.

Special Arrangement
Rajkumar's mother taking part in a protest in Thiruvananthapuram.

Vijaya is demanding a CBI probe into the incident, alleging that politically influential people are behind both the fraud and her husband’s death. Even as she was meeting Vijayan, her mother-in-law, 70-year-old Kasthuri, was participating in a massive march to the state assembly against custodial torture. Watching her walk hand in hand with 60-year-old Ramani, whose son Sreejith died in police custody in 2014, was a sobering reminder that even a state with much-touted progressive credentials hasn’t been able to tackle the scourge of third-degree torture that still lives in its lockups. 

Why was Rajkumar arrested? 

The former estate worker started a firm called Haritha Financiers at Thookkupalam in Idukki in April this year. The company, which also employed two women, began accepting deposits ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 5,000 from women’s self-help groups and individuals, promising to provide them loans up to Rs 5 lakh, said Alice Thomas, a member of the Nedumkandam grama panchayat and one of the victims of the alleged fraud.

But within two months, the local Nedumkandam police had got 34 complaints against Rajkumar for breach of promise. They picked him on 12 June and, according to officials from the Crime Branch, tortured him for four straight days at the station. Though he was remanded to judicial custody later, the torture continued in jail as well, and he died on 21 June 21.Rajkumar was brought dead to the Peerumedu taluk hospital, superintendent M Anand told the crime branch.

Shalini, the second accused in the fraud case and one of the firm’s two women employees, has said that the police roughed up Rajkumar in front of her soon after the arrest and that the police rubbed chilli powder on his genitals. Manju, the second woman employee, also accused the police of severe custodial torture. The two women have injury marks on their faces and hands.

“Rajkumar told us that he was getting funds from an influential person in Kerala’s Malappuram district and the whole business was being conducted on behalf of this person. His whereabouts are still unknown and police are not looking into this. We collected only Rs 15 lakh. The police’s allegation of embezzlement worth crores is absurd,’’ said Manju.

Shalini seconded this.“The officials took away Rs 2.30 lakh seized from me during the arrest. They had also took away Rs 75,000 seized from Rajkumar. The remand report doesn’t mention the seized amounts,’’ she said, and repeated Rajkumar’s wife’s claim that the case was orchestrated by influential people.

“My life is in danger and those who plotted the entire deal are very powerful with high political influence. They will suppress real facts and no involved policeman will be punished,’’ she said. 

Sunil, a remand prisoner who shared the cell with Rajkumar at Peerumedu jail, said even jail officials attacked Rajkumar brutally, ignoring his worsening health condition. 

“Rajkumar was taken to the jail in a stretcher and he was unable to walk or even stand. I had seen him begging for water before collapsing finally. The police are saying he died on the way to hospital from jail. It’s false. In fact, he died in jail itself,’’ Sunil told Huffpost India.

The autopsy report said Rajkumar’s body bore 22 wounds, including fractures and contusion. Four of his ribs, as well as his sternum, were fractured. 

Media reports that claim to have accessed his post-mortem report say that Rajkumar’s death was a case of urutti kola, an infamous torture practice where lathis or heavy iron rods are rolled over the body of the accused. Almost exactly a year ago, discussions about urutti kola had hit headlines after two policemen were awarded death sentences for the 2005 Udayakumar custodial death case.  

Getty Images
Pinarayi Vijayan’s announcement of a judicial commission inquiry into Rajkumar’s death has been dismissed by his family and rights organisation as eyewash.   

 

Series of transgressions

Rajkumar’s post-mortem report and subsequent revelations show that multiple rules were breached in his detention. According to Idukki-based lawyer James Kappan, Rajkumar’s arrest was recorded four days after he was taken into custody, when the law says it should be withing 24 hours. 

“The postmortem report clearly states the blunt force injuries he suffered, though the cause of death was mentioned as pneumonia,’’ said Kappan. 

Vijaya alleged that police had beaten him up when they came to take him into custody on June 12. 

“When he complained of chest pain at the lockup, he was taken to a local hospital. The doctor there referred him to Government Medical College Hospital in Kottayam for expert treatment but the officers ignored the advice and took him to the local magistrate’s house and the magistrate remanded him to judicial custody in Peerumedu sub-jail. Even the magistrate didn’t care about his worsening health condition,’’ she said. 

When the post-mortem report led to protests, the Kerala High Court intervened and ordered a probe against Idukki magistrate Reshmi Raveendran for remanding Rajkumar without taking into consideration his weak physical condition. The court has also sought a detailed report from the magistrate on the incident. 

Human rights activists have pointed out numerous lapses on the magistrate’s part. According to section 50 of the Kerala Police Act, a magistrate must examine carefully whether the police has tortured a detainee. The Act clearly warns against remanding people in custody without verifying their health condition. But in this case, even while Rajkumar was clearly unable to walk, the magistrate went to the vehicle parked outside her residence to complete the formalities for his remand.

While the government delayed taking any action, it transferred Idukki district police superintendent KB Venugopal out of the district last week. He was not given any posting. Among the eight police officers suspended from the service for alleged involvement in the torture, sub-inspector KA Sabu (first accused) and civil police officer Sajeev Antony (fourth accused), ASI CB Rejimon and civil police officer and driver Niyas have been arrested on charges of murder.  Rejimon and Niyas had been absconding and surrendered to investigating officers on Monday.

Vijayan’s announcement of a judicial commission inquiry into Rajkumar’s death has been dismissed by his family and rights organisation as eyewash. 

“In the last two decades, Kerala had 22 judicial commissions and successive governments have allowed their damning reports to simply gather dust,’’ said Kerala High Court lawyer Harish Vasudevan. Judicial commission reports, he said, are not legally binding and governments have the discretionary right to accept or reject them. 

The Telegraph reported that three commissions constituted in the past by the Left government are yet to submit their reports, while a fourth is still investigating a custody death that occurred during the previous UDF regime. 

Instead of relying on this, said Vasudevan, “the government must put an end to the abuse of power by police and their use of terror to extract false confessions”.