Deaths of shopkeeper and his son caused outrage in India, whose human rights watchdog says at least nine people die in police custody every day
By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, July 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The rare arrest of six police officers on murder charges over the death of two men in custody has emboldened victims to speak up against targeted police brutality in India, and demand an end to impunity.
Shopkeeper J Jayaraj, 59, and his son Bennicks Immanuel, 31, were beaten so badly for keeping their shop in the southern state of Tamil Nadu open in breach of coronavirus lockdown rules that they died in hospital last month.
Their deaths caused outrage in a country where human rights groups say minorities have long been subject to police brutality, and inspired comparisons to George Floyd, a Black American man whose death has inspired mass anti-racism protests.
"This case struck a chord because the two men had no criminal background and their only crime according to the police report was to keep their shop open beyond permitted hours," said V Suresh, general secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties.
"This case has already emboldened another family under the jurisdiction of the same police station to speak up. Across India, people have realised that the police's lathi (baton) has entered everyone's homes."
Police in Tamil Nadu did not return repeated calls for comment.
Nine people die in judicial or police custody every 24 hours in India, according to the latest annual report by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
The report for the year 2017/18 said some custodial deaths were reported after considerable delay or not reported at all, and violence in custody was so rampant "that it has become almost routine".
Government crime data, by contrast, shows 70 deaths in police custody in 2018 and only includes those where an official complaint was registered by police. No police were convicted over the deaths.
When India imposed a three-week national lockdown in March, social media was flooded with videos of police using their batons to beat migrant workers and other poor people with no choice but to go out to work.
Rickshaw pullers who defied curfew had their tyres let down and some were shown doing squats as punishment.
Opposition lawmaker Shashi Tharoor, a former United Nations Under-Secretary General, wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging him to rein in police brutality, saying it showed the country's law enforcement "in a very poor light".
During lockdown, poor Indians who needed to earn to survive were the main targets.
But human rights campaigners say India's minorities - including Muslims, indigenous groups and those from the lowest Dalit caste - have often borne the brunt of police brutality.
These groups are also disproportionately incarcerated by police, the charity Common Cause said in its Status of Policing in India Report of 2018.
"Most police torture cases deal with the voiceless, lower class communities and there is an inherent caste bias in these cases," said M A Britto, a campaigner for police reform.
'SO MUCH INJUSTICE'
Retired school teacher Jeyraj Issac lives in a village near the town of Sathankulam, where the six policemen arrested over the deaths of Jayaraj and his son were from.
For some time, he has been quietly documenting cases of men being picked up by police, beaten up and either released or sent to jail in the area.
"So much injustice is happening before my eyes," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
"I am watching everything, and in the last four months have recorded at least 60 cases where people have been picked up by police, beaten and asked to sign blank papers. All they are told is, 'there is a case against you'."
Issac is also helping the family of S Mahendran, a 28-year-old who was picked up by the Sathankulam police in May in a case where his brother was a suspect, and died shortly after his release. The family says he was tortured in custody.
"It happened a month before Jayaraj and Bennicks died, and the circumstances were the same," said Issac.
"The police just told the mother that he would be back if they found her older son, or she should assume Mahendran is dead. The boy died anyway a few days after he was released and the family was too scared to report it."
The case is now under investigation by police, who declined to comment.
Lawyers and human rights campaigners hope the latest case will help victims of police brutality speak up in the future.
The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, a regional network of 81 organisations, has called on the Indian government to enact a domestic anti-torture law.
In a joint statement on Monday, its members said the arrest of six police officers was just the first step towards addressing impunity and called for a law to end custodial torture to prevent future deaths of detainees.
"Jayaraj and Bennicks' death have seen massive protests, but it doesn't mean justice will be done," said Mohan, who goes by one name and is the associate director of People's Watch, which has fought numerous police torture cases.
"But this case has created awareness and shown people what is possible in a police brutality case. Hopefully, many more will come forward and speak up without fear in the future."
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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