Telangana: Alleged custodial deaths spark debate on police reforms

Hyderabad: Two alleged custodial deaths and torture have dealt a blow to the image of the police in Telangana and triggered a fresh debate on reforms in the force to prevent such incidents in future.

A case of custodial death of a Dalit and another case of custodial torture of a tribal were reported during last three days. This came at a time when the Telangana High Court was monitoring a probe into recent lock-up death of a Dalit woman, Mariyamma and it felt that it is appropriate to hand over the investigation to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

While Mariyamma died in police custody in Yadadri Bhuvanagiri district in June, the fresh cases were reported from Suryapet and Kamareddy district.

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In two of the cases, the victims were picked up by the police on suspicion of theft, while in the third case the Dalit was arrested during a raid on a group playing cards.

G. Veerashekar, the tribal man, was allegedly tortured by policemen in Atmakur (S) Police Station in Suryapet district on November 10.

The 23-year-old tribal farmer was picked from his field on suspicion of involvement in a theft.

The family members alleged that policemen tortured him and even made him drink his urine. After he fell unconscious, the police called his family members and handed him over to them saying he was not well.

After protest by the family members and other villagers, the police shifted Veerashekar to a hospital in Suryapet. Suryapet district superintendent of police S. Rajendra Pasad transferred sub-inspector M. Lingaiah to Vacancy Reserve (VR). The SP also ordered a probe into the case.

In the second case reported from Kamareddy district, Odanti Bhimaboya died after he was allegedly tortured in police custody.

The 50-year-old resident of Shantapur village of Bichkunda mandal was picked up by police on November 4 when he was watching a few villagers playing cards.

The incident came to light two days ago after his family members staged a protest in front of Hyderabad’s Gandhi Hospital, where he died while undergoing treatment on November 11.

The family had earlier admitted him to a private hospital in Nizamabad and though they spent Rs 1.5 lakh, his health did not improve. As his condition deteriorated, they shifted him to the Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad.

His wife also claimed that the police were forcing her to sign a statement that the man died due to natural causes. She also claimed that doctors informed them the cause of death was blood clots due to the police thrashing. She wrote to police authorities, demanding justice. The police however, said the man was not beaten up in custody.

It was ironic that the fresh cases were reported when the Telangana High Court on November 13 felt it appropriate to hand over the investigation into alleged lockup death of Mariyamma to the CBI.

The victim, who was working as a maid at a pastor’s house, was picked up by the police after the pastor accused her of stealing Rs 2 lakhs.

The woman died in the police custody at Addagurudu Police Station in Rachakonda Police Commissionerate on June 18, 2021, due to the alleged police torture. The police, however, claimed that she had died of a heart attack in the police station.

The High Court, which had ordered re-post-mortem while hearing a PIL filed by People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) general secretary Jaya Vindhyala, noted the variation in reports of two post-mortems.

The division bench, headed by Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma, noted that in the first report no injuries were recorded, and the inquest over the dead body of the deceased did not disclose any injuries over the body. The second post-mortem, however, found grave injuries on the body of the deceased.

“Anybody, who is beaten like this, her heart will stop,” said the Chief Justice while showing the photographs which depict grave injuries inflicted on the body of the victim to Advocate General B.S Prasad.

The court observed that it is a fit case to a probe by an independent agency and directed the Superintendent of Police, the CBI to be present at the next hearing on November 22.

The High Court had earlier ordered an inquiry through a judicial magistrate while finding fault with the state government for ordering the probe by a tehsildar. The judicial magistrate furnished the report in sealed cover.

The incidents have brought into sharp focus the way police were conducting the investigations in violation of rules. Human rights activists say the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court to prevent custodial torture and deaths were being flouted.

The state police, which claims to be in the forefront in using the latest technological tools for investigations in a scientific manner, has come under flak for not following the basic rules.

Jeevan Kumar of the Human Rights Forum pointed out that in Mariyamma’s case it was male police personnel who arrested her in violation of Supreme Court guidelines. “It’s not surprising that in all cases of custodial deaths or torture, the CCTV cameras in police stations don’t function. The police switch off the cameras,” he told IANS.

The activist, who claims to have seen 700-800 custodial deaths in undivided Andhra Pradesh since 1977, said not a single policeman was punished in any case. “They suspend the policemen involved but later bring them back,” he said.

Kumar said nine lock-up deaths have occurred in Telangana since the state was formed in 2014. He said every custodial death should be probed by a judicial magistrate but the government gets it investigated by an executive magistrate.

The activist believes that policemen act at the behest of somebody to torture people in custody. “The policemen will be under pressure from higher-ups and their political bosses and they believe that truth will come out only through torture,” he said.

Kumar said a change can be brought if police is made an independent agency. He said Police Complaint Authority should be set up at the state level to look into all such cases.

He said every case of custodial death also underlined the need to pass Prevention of Torture Bill, 2010. The Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha in 2010, but when it came up in Rajya Sabha it was referred to Select Committee. The panel submitted its report but the Bill was never passed.

“These shameful incidents are happening in 2021 and this shows what kind of society we are living in,” said retired IAS officer Akunuri Murali.

He lamented that the police force has not reformed. Murali, who is currently advisor to Andhra Pradesh government for infrastructure in schools, met Veerashekar in Suryapet hospital.

Murali also noted that it is the people from SCs, STs and other lower castes and poor who are victims of custodial deaths and torture.

“If anything happens to somebody from upper caste they react immediately but when it happens to lower caste people and poor they don’t do anything,” the former IAS officer said. He pointed out that no official or local MLA visited the hospital to meet the victim.

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