There are none so blind as those who will not see. - Jonathan Swift

QUESTION TIME There is absolutely no way in the world that torture and death in police lock-ups can happen without the connivance and concurrence of a number of people.

First, someone has to take the person out of the lock-up and then bring him back. Someone has to know where the person was taken to, for how long and by whom. Thus, if there is death in a police lock-up, it is an open and shut case that can be solved in just a few minutes.

Unless those responsible refuse to talk, there are no set procedures and people simply refuse to say anything, in which case the whole damn system is responsible for it right from the policemen to the prime minister.

azlanIt is not that they cannot see that an illegal death has taken place, that people have been horribly tortured to death, and that one community has suffered much more than others. It is because they would not see - they shut their eyes to it and carry on with life.

For death and torture in police lock-ups to end, there has to be commitment towards ending it. If there is such a commitment, it can be stopped overnight. It is very easy to end but the will to end it is not there and is simply another reflection of the poor standards of human rights in this country.

If we are civilised and want to attain developed status in every sense of the word, and not be relegated to the lowly outcast station of police states where detainees turn up dead with signs of gruesome torture all over, we need to simply respect the equal rights of everyone to a fair investigation and trial. And that means everyone without exception.

If we don’t recognise that as a basic right of any person, even those who might be criminals, then we are doomed. We cannot allow the police to be above the law to enforce the law - it is essential that enforcement is always according to the law.

Simple list

If those in power are still at a loss as to how to prevent deaths and torture in police custody, here is a simple list of 10 steps guaranteed to do just that in no time at all.
  • Announce publicly a policy of zero deaths and no torture. This is really, really important. It is an acknowledgement of the belief in the rule of the law and that there will be no exception no matter what and no matter how heinous the purported crime the detainee has committed. No torture or death means just that. 
  • Say clearly that the guilty will be brought to book and mean it. It is necessary to show the police force that this time, there is real seriousness in implementing this and that there will be real accountability. Those responsible for death or torture must be brought to book forthwith and the heaviest charges and sentences sought. Only then will there be belief that this menace will be got rid off.
  • Keep a lock-up logbook. This logbook must be updated each time a detainee moves in or out of the lock-up and should also have the signature of the detainee certifying that he is alright and well and has not been physically abused.
  • Account for every second of detainees’ time. The logbook should also detail where the detainee was when taken out of the lock-up and under whose custody he was. Basically every second of the detainee’s time should be fully accounted for.
  • Make superiors responsible for omissions. The key performance index targets for police officers heading lock-ups should heavily weigh proper procedures and record-keeping, making them directly responsible for the safety of the detainees.
  • Mete out heavy sentences for not keeping proper records. Keeping proper records of detainee movements is vital to ensure that detainees are not physically abused. If these records are not properly kept, than there is room for abuse. Therefore heavy punishment needs to be meted out if proper records are not kept. Spot checks can be imposed for these purposes.
  • Instal video cameras that can be remotely monitored. Video cameras in working condition should be put up to monitor those entering and exiting lockups. By monitoring these remotely, other agencies can ensure that things are being done according to the law and procedure.
  • Disallow confessions made to police. Allowing confessions made to police to be used in court simply encourages cops to beat a confession out of those believed to be criminals. By disallowing these, except under strict procedures where legal representatives are present, it would remove abuse.
  • Allow calls by those who have been detained. Those who are detained should be allowed to call their families and loved ones to let them know that they have been arrested and where they are being detained.
  • Set up the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) without delay. Seriously, we cannot expect the police to fairly investigate their own kind. In anything that involves misbehaviour of the police, it requires a separate IPCMC to look into the matter and take action.
This is not about whether the morale of the police will be affected or not - that’s not the issue at all. It’s about putting right once and for all years and years of denial of basic rights to the most deprived sections of our society. It is worrisome that things are getting worse despite public outcry.

If the police are demoralised simply because they are required to abide strictly by the law in the treatment of detainees, something’s terribly, horribly wrong. This requires an entire revamp of the police force to remove those who are opposed to upholding the rule of law at all times and without any exception.

At the end of the day, if we don’t do anything about deaths and torture under police detention, it reflects lack of political will and giving in to the basest and worst among those who have been directly entrusted with upholding the rule of law.

And that’s rather dangerous. I am sure none of us, barring those who hold power through such a mechanism, want a police state.

P GUNASEGARAM is founding editor of KiniBiz.