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.

Arko Datta/REUTERS
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.

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.

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.

Mr. Chakma, the report author, commended the government for taking the step, given the timing. But he and other human rights activists criticize the secrecy surrounding the new bill and they worry that flaws in an older version of the bill from 2008 will not be addressed. Specifically, the old bill left bureaucrats with the power to veto judicial inquiries into torture cases. The 2008 bill also put the burden of proof on victims' families, rather than on the police, in disputed cases of deaths in custody.

There are also major exemptions under laws aimed at crushing insurgencies in places like Kashmir and the northeast. "In all areas where torture is endemic there is blanket immunity and exemptions under law," says Ravi Nair, head of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center in Delhi.

Such loopholes are problems internationally, too, he says, pointing to China, which has signed and ratified the convention.

"The whole international antitorture regime has weakened over the last 15 years, and especially since 9/11," says Mr. Nair. "In every single interaction with apologists of the state in conferences and seminars, what is thrown against us is 'see what the US is doing' " – referring to the American use of torture in the war on terror.

He argues that more than any change in laws, cultural acceptance for torture must change. For this reason, he argues that Elliott's case is significant.

Elliott's case

According to Elliott, his troubles began when he rounded a dark street corner and found four or more uniformed policemen beating someone. He cried out in shock, and that started a heated exchange that turned violent when a policeman hit him with a baton, started to wind up again, and then Elliott punched him in the jaw. Elliott says he fled in fear and tried to hide in a parked taxi. A bystander thought he meant to steal the taxi and shouted to the pursuing police.

Elliott has been charged with attempted theft of the taxi and destruction of property. Police say he smashed the taxi window. Elliott denies attempting to steal the taxi or smashing the window. He was not certain police had pressed those charges until contacted by the Monitor.

When asked about how the case was handled, local officials referred the Monitor to higher-level police officials. One phone number did not work. The other was answered by an official who said the case had moved to another department and that he would call back later that evening with a number. He did not, nor could he be reached again.

Local police inspector Suresh Kaushik says, however, that Elliott was never formally arrested, just detained, so it was unnecessary to call the US Embassy.

"There are different definitions of torture," says Mr. Kaushik. He doesn't see how this case is relevant to the debate: "He was neither a suspect nor brought to the police station for interrogations. It was a public brawl and he was brought to hospital."

'Sensible citizens' don't question policemen

In questioning the policemen's actions that night in October, Elliott appears to have crossed a cultural line.

"The fact is that he attempted to question the policeman," says Nair. "In India, any sensible citizen does not question a policeman. The minute you do, the wrath of state comes upon you. He, being an American, didn't understand the unwritten civil contract that all Indians understand."

Elliott concurs, and also sees how his case can highlight the wider problem.

"Several Indian friends told me they had similar experiences with police in New Delhi. But nobody heard their stories. People only heard my story because I was an American journalist," Elliott wrote in an e-mail.

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