‘Serious concerns about entire operation’

Interview with Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director, Human Rights Watch.

Published : Nov 09, 2016 12:30 IST

Meenakshi Ganguly.

Meenakshi Ganguly.

ONCE a journalist with Time magazine, Meenakshi Ganguly uses the acumen of a mediaperson to arrive at the truth when it comes to human rights violation. Calling for an investigation by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) into the “Bhopal encounter”, she termed extrajudicial killings as a human rights violation. She wanted the government to investigate the incident thoroughly instead of asking citizens not to question it, and hoped that the incident would bring in its wake “proper training and accountability of the police”.

Now based in London, she has, in the past, done research on abuses relating to the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, the Maoist conflict and violations resulting from the fighting in Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur. Excerpts from an interview she gave Frontline :

The killing of eight undertrials in Bhopal has raised many questions about the violation of their human rights. The prisoners were shot dead rather than injured. Does it not raise suspicion that the state is trying to hide foul play? An alive undertrial could have had uncomfortable revelations....

There are serious concerns about the entire operation. Both Indian and international law require law-enforcement officials to use minimum force and to save lives. The government needs to order a transparent and time-bound investigation to determine whether the suspects could have been captured alive, whether the police acted in a trigger-happy manner, or whether they deliberately chose to kill instead of capture these men. Police reform in India has been long delayed. This incident should trigger proper training and accountability of the police.

There have been contradictory statements from officials with regard to the SIMI operatives being armed or not. Since no weapons were recovered from them, is it a fit case for human rights bodies to step in and find out the truth?

Under the NHRC guidelines, every death in police custody or in an armed encounter should be independently investigated. In this case, contradictory statements from officials have shown that the suspects may not have posed a threat to life since they had no weapons. In many other cases, we have found that after extrajudicial killings—often described as “encounters”—security officials say that they had to fire in self-defence and make false claims of weapons recovery.

Unfortunately, police abuse, whether in India, the United States or any other country persists because of overwhelming barriers to accountability, which make it possible for officers to get away with committing human rights violations. Police or public officials treat these incidents with denials or claim that the act was an aberration. The Indian government needs to urgently reform the administrative and criminal justice systems to deter these abuses by holding the police accountable.

The undertrials have been dubbed terrorists by a section of the media. How do you look at this?

These men were under trial. Until convicted, the basic principle of justice is the presumption of innocence. Yet, too often we find that there is irresponsible presumption of guilt. This is dangerous and has to stop. Terrorism is a very serious offence, and in the present climate of fear and hate, it is easy to fall prey to profiling based on religion, caste or race. It is important to remember that none of these men had been convicted.

During their jailbreak, however, these men are alleged to have killed a police officer. The police, in their hunt for the escapees, could have therefore treated the suspects to be dangerous. Yet, law enforcement officials are still required to exercise restraint and act [in a manner that is] proportionate to the threat, and seek to minimise casualties.

It was reported that the prisoners were subjected to sexual assault in jail. There are also allegations that the prisoners were likely to reveal it all at the next hearing. Does it not call for a medical examination of the men?

There are numerous allegations and rumours. The government should order an immediate investigation into the entire incident, including any abuses in custody, the circumstances around the jailbreak, and the eventual shooting of the suspects.

The Bhopal case can heighten the fears among minorities regarding their safety under the current political regime. How can such suspicion be allayed?

Prejudice has no place in a rights-respecting police force. What is worrying is that the so-called nationalists are eager to defend the police action because they have assumed that the suspects were, in fact, guilty of terrorism. We have seen this same narrative previously in the Ishrat Jahan case. Punishing suspects after determining whether they are innocent or guilty is the responsibility of the court. Extrajudicial killings are a human rights violation.

You call the Bhopal incident an extrajudicial killing. Should the judicial bodies take suo motu action in such a case?

There are videos suggesting that the men may have wanted to surrender, or that the police deliberately shot a suspect who posed no immediate threat. The government should order an investigation instead of recommending that people should not question the authorities.

The NHRC should investigate the incident. So should other constitutional bodies like the National Commission for Minorities. Any member of the public can also seek judicial intervention by appealing to the court.

We saw how the system was manipulated in the Ishrat Jahan case. Now, with the latest incident, what, in your view, are the chances of a free and fair trial under the same party’s regime?

There was an independent investigation into allegations of extrajudicial killings in the Ishrat case. A number of senior officials were arrested and they should be properly prosecuted.

During our work with the police, many have told us that they engage in extrajudicial killings because they are not able to secure evidence to ensure a conviction, or worry that criminals will be granted bail and escape trial. Some even think that such killings might be rewarded.

There is an urgent need for reforms to the criminal justice system to end this practice and to hold the police accountable for abuses.

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