It took a while for Indians to learn how a father and son died in hospital with blood pouring from their rectum, days after police in a southern town locked them up for violating a nationwide coronavirus lockdown.
Fanned by media reports, outrage spread throughout India over what happened between June 19 and June 23 in Sathankulam, a town on the sub-continent’s southern tip, 2,785 km from the capital New Delhi.
A month earlier, many Indians noted how commonplace police brutality was in their own country when they saw the furious global reaction to images of George Floyd, a Black American man, dying as a Milwaukee policeman knelt on his neck.
Yet, despite nearly 800 custodial deaths in India in the latest eight years covered by official data, no police officers were convicted in any of the cases.
Charges have yet to be laid in Sathankulam, and it is uncertain whether investigations into the deaths of J Jayaraj, 59, and his son, 31-year-old Bennicks Immanuel will lead to prosecutions, but five officers have been named as murder suspects.
Jayaraj, the owner of a mobile phone shop, was detained on June 19 after exchanging words with officers who accused him of breaking lockdown rules.
That night, accompanied by friends, including two lawyers, Immanuel went to the police station looking for his father. When he remonstrated with officers over why his father had been beaten, he was locked up too, his friends told Reuters.
Both men, allegedly, were brutally beaten while in custody, taken to hospital, and then transferred to jail.
“When they sat on a chair in the hospital and in a car when they were taken to the magistrate, they left blood trails. That’s how much they were bleeding,” said S. Rajaram, one of the lawyers. Other witnesses asked for their names to be withheld, fearing police retribution.
Immanuel, described as fit and healthy by his family, died on June 22. His father died on June 23. They were buried together a day later.
Jayaraj’s eldest daughter recounted what male relatives and friends had told her and photographs had shown.
“You should see the bedsheet they were sitting on while being transported to the jail. It was full of blood. And this was hours after they were brought to a hospital,” J Persis, the daughter, told Reuters.
The case prompted popular news channels Times Now and Republic TV to run prime time debates on police conduct, and there were biting commentaries in op-ed pages of national dailies.
“Coming so soon after the George Floyd incident in the U.S., the Sathankulam episode should shock our conscience,” R.K. Raghavan, a former Central Bureau of Investigation director, wrote in The Hindu newspaper.
As the media storm gathered, a court in Madurai, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, ordered the case to be made a murder probe.
As each state has its own police force under India’s federal system, the CBI, an agency equivalent to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, was tasked with investigating.
On July 1, the first policeman was detained. By July 9, cases had been filed against the five police suspected of murder, and five suspected of abetting them.
Reuters was unable to establish whether any of them had appointed lawyers.
Tamil Nadu’s police chief did not respond to a request for comment for this story. The office of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edapadi Palaniswami did not respond either, though he has previously said action would be taken “as per the law.”
India is a country of 1.3 billion people with massive social problems, but it is also a democracy, with strong laws, a vibrant media and active public interest litigation lawyers. So, when abuses happen someone usually speaks up, even if culprits often avoid jail.
Yet out of the 783 custodial deaths between 2010 and 2018, National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) records show charges were only filed in over a sixth of the cases.
And there were no convictions.
According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the NCRB data understates the scale of the problem. It put the annual average for custodial deaths at 143, some 46% higher than the NCRB average of 98.
Caste and religious frictions sometimes play a part in custodial deaths in India, while some are suspected extra-judicial killings of criminals who “were trying to escape”.
But a common denominator for many cases, legal experts say, can be boiled down to the brutish behaviour of officers who know their colleagues will keep their mouths shut.
Yet, the NCRB data shows that nearly 16% of custodial deaths in the five years through 2018 were explicitly classified as being due to “physical assault” by police.
“There are very few witnesses in custodial deaths because mostly the witnesses are people who are on duty, who don’t support the investigation,” said Ravi Kant, president of the National Network of Lawyers for Rights and Justice and a senior advocate at India’s Supreme Court.
Neither the Home or Justice Ministries responded to requests for comment on the dearth of convictions.
India’s Law Commission – an executive body responsible for legal reform – had twice recommended – once in 1985 and again in 1994 – that if there was evidence that a person was injured in custody, courts could assume the injuries were caused by police.
More than 25 years later, however, the recommendations have yet to be adopted.
A report released in 2016 by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), a rights body for people born into the lowest rung of India’s caste hierarchy, highlighted cases of men in custody being tortured by having heavy stones tied to their genitals, and women having chilli powder and petrol poured on their genitalia.
The report was submitted to the President, but two of the authors said no action has been taken yet. The President’s office did not respond to requests seeking comment.