The alleged custodial death of SR Sreejith in Varappuzha, Ernakulam district, has again brought into focus human rights violations committed by the Kerala police.

According to activists, Sreejith, 26, was the fifth man to die in police custody since the Left Democratic Front government, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), came to power in May 2016. He was taken from his home by three plainclothesmen on the evening of April 6, apparently for attacking the house of one Vasudevan. Two days later, he was admitted to a private hospital in the town; he complained of stomach ache and had difficulty urinating. The doctors found his small intestine was damaged and performed an emergency surgery. However, his condition worsened around noon on April 9 and he died a few hours later.

On Thursday, the State Human Rights Commission confirmed Sreejith had been tortured in custody after visiting the Varappuzha police station and examining the records pertaining to his detention. P Mohana Das, acting chairman of the commission, said a certificate issued by the medical officer at a government hospital in North Parur, where Sreejith had been initially treated, indicated that he had been tortured.

The commission also found the police had not followed the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court for arresting an accused. The guidelines stipulate that police personnel carrying out the arrest should bear clear and visible identification and name tags with their designations; they should prepare a memo of arrest and have it attested by at least one witness; they should inform a friend or relative of the accused about the arrest; the arrested person should be examined by a trained doctor every 48 hours during the detention; and copies of all documents, including the memo of arrest, should be sent to the local magistrate.

“I was shocked to know the police didn’t produce Sreejith before a magistrate,” Das said. “The police’s version that the magistrate was not available reeked of suspicion. Had he been produced before the magistrate, he would have opened up about the police atrocities.”

Das told a local TV news channel on Thursday that Sreejith’s death might warrant an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation because police officials were involved in it.

Sreejith’s death sparked public outrage but it took the government three days to suspend the four police personnel involved in his detention. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan broke his silence on Thursday, promising “stringent action” against the police personnel who are found responsible for Sreejith’s death.

Mounting toll

This is not the first time the Kerala police under the Left Front government have been accused of gross human rights violations. In July 2017, Vinayakan, a 19-year-old Dalit man working at a beauty parlour, committed suicide at his home in Pavaratty, Thrissur, a day after being released from police custody. The autopsy found three scars on his forehead, six on the lower abdomen and one above the right nipple, indicating that he had been tortured. Faced with a public outcry, the government suspended two police officers while the police chief announced an Crime Branch investigation, which is yet to be completed.

On October 23, another Dalit man died in a Thiruvananthapuram hospital a day after leaving police custody. Kunjumon, 39, was from Kundara in Kollam district. His mother alleged a heavy blow to his head had caused Kunjumon’s death.

A year earlier, in October 2016, Kalimuthu, a 48-year-old man from Salem in Tamil Nadu arrested for theft, was found dead in police custody in Thalassery, Kannur district. The National Human Rights Commission said it was a “case of violation of right to life of a person”.

Abdul Latheef was found hanging in a toilet of the Wandoor police station in Malappuram district on September 11, 2016. The truck driver had been taken into custody the previous day but the police had not recorded his arrest. His family alleged the police had tortured Latheef to death and hung his body to make it look like suicide.

‘Criminalisation of police’

The Kerala police have also faced many complaints for misbehaving with the public. Just last month, a police officer assaulted a retired railway official for allegedly obstructing the governor’s convoy. After the incident was widely reported, state police chief Loknath Behra directed district police chiefs to regularly train their personnel in the art of dealing with the public.

Sreejith’s death shows the training sessions have not yielded the desired results, at least so far.

Facing stinging criticism after the latest custodial death, Behra claimed a few “erratic personnel” were bringing the entire police force into disrepute. “We will not tolerate custodial deaths,” he added.

But DB Binu, a lawyer and Right to Information activist, alleged that the police’s deteriorating reputation was a result of its “criminalisation”. Binu has obtained a list of police personnel accused in criminal cases. “As many as 1,129 of them face criminal cases,” he said. “The list was prepared by the police department. It is testimony to the criminalisation of the police. The list has sub-inspectors, circle inspectors, deputy superintendents and assistant commissioners. It is a matter of serious concern. How can these tainted police officers behave well with citizens? How can they ensure protection to accused in custody?”

Based on the information provided by Binu, the State Human Rights Commission on Thursday registered a suo motu case and asked the police to initiate action against its personnel named in the list. It also sought a report from the home secretary and the director general of police within 30 days.

Thushar Nirmal, leader of the Janakeeya Manushyavakasha Prasthanam, or People’s Human Rights Movement, said successive governments have ignored human rights violations by the police. “Governments need police to implement their agenda,” he explained. “So they will never show the political will to rein in the police force.”

Nirmal said the problem is compounded by the police’s “archaic systems” of interrogation and training, and a rigid hierarchy. “Torture is their main weapon,” he said. “They continue to wield it and the ruling class has no problem with it.”