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In India, beaten US journalist becomes focus of police torture probe

A report on 'widespread and systemic' police torture in India was published today, focusing on the case of US journalist Joel Elliott. Mr. Elliott claims that Indian police beat him severely while he was in their custody.

By Staff writer / April 13, 2010

Indian police take part in a parade on Police Commemoration Day in Mumbai October 21, 2009. A human rights watchdog group has published a report alleging 'widespread and systemic' police torture in India, focusing on the case of US journalist Joel Elliott, who says he was beaten severely while in police custody.

Arko Datta/REUTERS

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New Delhi

An American journalist beaten in New Delhi during a run-in with police six months ago has become the focus of a broader antitorture push in India.

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Joel Elliott, a journalist who has written for The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, and other publications, suffered severe wounds on his head, legs, and back – as well as a black eye – in the October 2009 incident. The Delhi police have yet to respond to an official human rights complaint filed five months ago.

Mr. Elliott, now in the US, charges that the police beat and tortured him over the course of six or seven hours that he was in custody and refused his pleas to call the US Embassy.

Graphic photos of Elliott's injuries form the cover of a new watchdog report entitled "Torture in India 2010" released Tuesday. (A PDF copy can be downloaded here, but readers should be forewarned that they may find the images disturbing.)

In the report, activists welcome a new government push to pass an antitorture bill, but warn the effort may not be enough to stop what they see as a worsening problem.

"You have a case here who is distinctly identified as a foreigner, who looks like a European. If that person can be subjected to torture in such a manner – the photographs speak for themselves – in the heart of Delhi, one can imagine what would happen to the aam admi [common man]," said Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights in Delhi and editor of the report.

'Widespread and systematic' torture by police

The report calls torture in police custody "widespread and systematic." Putting accurate figures on the practice is impossible due to underreporting. But a total of 377,216 official complaints against the police – involving everything from rape to kidnappings to deaths in custody – have been filed since 1993 with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), a government-mandated body in Delhi.

According to human rights groups, data on torture isn't recorded unless there is a death in custody. Those annual figures have been rising: up to 1,977 cases in 2007-2008 from 1,037 officially reported cases in 2000-2001.

While India signed the United Nations Convention against Torture in 1997, the nation has yet to pass legislation that would ratify the convention. The government announced Thursday that it would reintroduce in Parliament a bill to bring the country into compliance.

"Although some provisions exist in the Indian Penal Code, they neither define 'torture' as clearly as in Article 1 of the Convention nor make it criminal as called for by Article 4," says a government press release. Indian officials refused to speak further on the proposal.

India moves to rein in torture, despite tense climate

India is still reeling from the massacre of 76 police by Maoist insurgents known as Naxalites in the country's restive northeast last week. But rather than invoke the usual "national security" argument to stymie complaints about torture, India has moved to ratify the UN convention against torture.

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