Unnatural Prison Deaths: High Court Seeks Prisoner Count, Details

Srinagar—The Jammu and Kashmir High Court on Wednesday ordered State and government of India to provide within three weeks details about prisoners who died unnatural death in state jails from 2012. 

Hearing a suo-moto Public Interest Litigation in compliance to the directions by the Supreme Court, a division bench of Justices Mohammad Yaqoob Mir and Ali Mohammad Magrey made Principal Secretary to J&K’s Home Department, Director General of Police, Director General Prisons and Union of India through Ministry of Home Affairs as respondents in the plea.

The court ordered all of them to file response within three weeks to the directions by the Supreme Court regarding the ‘adequate’ compensation to the next of the kin of inmates who died unnatural death in prisoners across the state from 2012 onwards. 

The Apex Court had actually passed slew of directions and in one of them, it asked all high courts to register a suo-motu petition to identify kin of prisoners who admittedly died an unnatural death after 2012 and award suitable compensation to them.

In a Public Interest Litigation—Re-Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons, the apex court had observed the right sounding noises critical of custodial violence, in any form, cannot achieve any useful purpose unless persons in authority hear the voices of the victims or the silence of the dead.

 “Custodial violence has always been a matter of great concern for all civilized societies. (it) could take the form of third degree methods to extract information– the method used need not result in any physical violence but could be in the form of psychological violence. (It) could also include a violation of bodily integrity through sexual violence – it could be to satisfy the lust of a person in authority or for some other reason. The ‘Mathura Rape Case’ is one such incident that most are familiar with,” a division bench of the apex court comprising Justices M B Lokur and Deepak Gupta had observed while hearing PIL.

The Mathura rape case was an incident of custodial rape on 26 March 1972, wherein a young tribal girl was allegedly raped by two policemen on the compound of Desai Ganj Police Station in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra. After the Supreme Court acquitted the accused, there was public outcry and protests, which eventually led to amendments in rape law in India.

“Custodial violence could, sometimes, lead to the death of its victim who is in a terribly disadvantaged and vulnerable condition. All these forms of custodial violence make it abhorrent and invite disparagement from all sections of civilized society,” the court said, emphasising that like most societies, India was not strangers to custodial violence and unnatural deaths.

“Our vibrant democracy permits us to debate and discuss these issues with rational arguments. However, right sounding noises critical of custodial violence (in any form) cannot achieve any useful purpose unless persons in authority hear the voices of the victims or the silence of the dead and act on them by taking remedial steps,” the court said, adding, “There must be a greater degree of sensitivity among those in authority with regard to persons in custody and it has been the endeavour of the constitutional courts in our country, over several decades, to consistently flag this issue. The results have been somewhat mixed but the effort will continue as long as Article 21 remains in our Constitution. This message goes out loud and clear, as also the message that the dignity of the individual is not a plaything for those in authority,” the court said and passed slew of directions.

Besides identifying kin of prisoners who dies unnatural death after 2012 and awarding suitable compensation to them, the top court had also directed all state governments to appoint counsellors and support persons for counselling prisoners, particularly first-time offenders.

The top court had also directed all states to study the availability of medical assistance to prisoners and take remedial steps wherever necessary.

“We request the Chief Justice of the high court to register a suo motu public interest litigation with a view to identify the next of kin of prisoners who have admittedly died an unnatural death as revealed by the NCRB during the period between 2012 and 2015 and even thereafter and awards suitable compensation, unless adequate compensation has already been awarded,” the court had said.

As per National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there were 126 unnatural deaths in prisons during 2012, 115 in 2013, 195 in 2014 and 115 in 2015. 

“The state governments are directed to appoint counsellors and support persons for counselling prisoners, particularly first-time offenders. In this regard the services of recognised NGOs can be taken and encouraged,” it had said.

The apex court has also directed the Ministry of Woman and Child Development to discuss with the official concerned of the state governments “and formulate procedures for tabulating the number of children (if any) who suffer an unnatural death in child care institutions where they are kept in custody either because they are in conflict with law or because they need care and protection”.

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