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Lesson Number Two from the Roches Noire Campement Saga

29.01.2015

The article below was published in L'Express on Wednesday 28 January. We are reprinting it.

The Importance of a New Enquiry into the Death-in-Detention of Mr. A.K. Ramdhony
The death in detention of Anand Kumar Ramdhony in July 201l was found by the Magistrate, Shefali Ganoo, who did the judicial enquiry, to have been suicide by hanging. As far as we can make out from Press reports, he is supposed to have hanged himself from the thigh-high cell door handle. The Police say they found him “lying in his cell”. Strange hanging.

Now, with the attempt to link this death-in-detention to the burglary (and assault?) at Ramgoolam’s campement at Roches Noires, the Magistrate’s findings of “suicide” are in question. And, because of past cover-ups for deaths-in-detention by so many State personnel (police officers, police medical officers who do autopsies, judicial staff at all levels, even medical staff in hospitals, drivers of government vehicles, to name just the main ones), nobody in the country even thinks it strange that an enquiry which has already been judged by a Magistrate is being “re-opened” when there is a change in Government. It is as though everyone thinks that the enquiries after deaths-in-detention were always just a farce anyway. The lesson to be learnt from the Roches Noires saga comes from asking the question, “Are judicial enquiries into deaths-in-detention just a farce?”

Like dozens of young men in good health since Independence, Mr. Anand Kumar Ramdhony lost his life while in Police custody. Like dozens of men, he had been neither found guilty of any misdeed, nor even tried. Mr. Ramdhony should not even have been locked up, it would seem. An acquaintance of his, who admitted stealing his own wife’s watch (difficult to lay charges for that if they were married “community of property”), claimed he sold it to Mr. Ramdhony for Rs200. The Police searched Mr. Ramdhony’s house and found nothing. So, why on earth was he locked up Police Cells at all? And he is not the only one: Why was Kaya locked up? Why was Mr. Ramlogun locked up? This is the very first problem. For what offences can someone just be locked up in cells? Somehow this question does not get addressed in the legal process.

Then, as usual in cases of deaths-in-detention, it is the Police doctors who do the autopsies. This is just not good enough. There is a clear conflict of interests because these Police Medical Officers are not only colleagues of policemen in the same Police Force, but are actually responsible for the health of the very same Police Officers who are potential suspects for murder or manslaughter. Officers come to consult with them if they suffer from sleep problems, for example, after being in a team perpetrating torture. Clearly, there must in future be a separate team of independent pathologists set up to do autopsies in these cases.

And that is not the only problem with the procedures. In the Judicial Enquiries that follow deaths-in-detention, the Magistrate does not, in fact, actually do the “enquiring”, as the law would seem to demand. In these cases, Magistrates sit there passively as though hearing just another ordinary, adversarial-style case with Police Officers doing the enquiring, as usual. It is the Police who are, in practise, in charge of finding out if there was foul play. And this foul play can only have been perpetrated by none other than their colleagues in the very same Police force. There must be a separate team of investigating officers, too, for this kind of offense. And magistrates must actually do some enquiring.

And, all police officers must also have the right to unionize, so as to protect themselves from illegal “orders” that foster both the torture, and the ongoing cover-ups for torture.

And, if ever you take a half day off to attend the desolate spectacle of a Judicial Enquiry into a death-in-detention, as LALIT members have often done, taking turns to be absent from work, since the death of Serge Victorine in 1979, through the case into Kaya’s death in 1999, and then Mr. Rajesh Ramlagun’s death in 2006, you will find that not only is the Magistrate not doing any hands-on enquiring, not only are the Police not looking for a suspect, as they are supposed to, but you will find that the Police and DPP’s officers are hell-bent on proving that there is no foul play. They are clearly convinced that their role is to disculpatethe police officers. They act like the State Law Officers who defend civil servants. You will find that most Magistrates, being recruited direct from the DPP’s office or the State Law Office, usually have a mind-set that is pro-police, even, or especially, when police officers are accused of brutality.

So, the magistrate is not looking for a suspect, and the Police aren’t either.
The State just washes its hands of the poor young men who die after being brutalized by officers of the State. Their families are usually left bewildered by a labyrinth of bureaucratic procedures.
But sometimes the family is well-enough supported, and well-off enough, to give a private lawyer a “watching brief”. So, it is often the family and a barrister with a mere watching brief, who have to try, from this absurdly weak position, to run the enquiry. It is a private barrister who, in practice, has to try to find a suspect amongst the Police Officers into whose custody the dead man was entrusted.

In other words, Judicial Enquiries into deaths-in-detention are, in fact, routinely a farce. And this is why everyone thinks it quite normal that a change in Government can put the Magistrate’s findings into question. This is the starting point of lesson number two from the Roches Noires Campement Saga.

The deaths-in-detention filed as “suicides” are usually the result, in the opinion of LALIT, of police officers beating and/or torturing suspects, to get them either to confess to some offense, or to implicate someone else in the offense. These deaths, or murders, are then disguised as suicide by hanging or by some equally far-fetched means like by banging their heads on the floor, or falling about in the cell. And one of the reasons that such deaths-in-detention have been allowed to continue is that there has, so far, never been the political will of any Government to actually put a stop the torture and the beating. Political parties in power turn a blind eye to it, and parties in Opposition call for more “law and order”, which enquiring officers interpret as even more “bate” . This lack of political will is, in turn, attributed by those of us who follow deaths-in-detention to the existence of an unholy alliance between powerful men like Ministers and the Police. The Police hide the Ministers’ “private lives”, their mistresses and visits to hotels. They mislay records of their drunken driving offences. They get their children out of charges for drug offences. And so on. In return, the Ministers, and other politicians, then turn a blind eye to deaths-in-detention, and do nothing to take State responsibility for preventing these dozens and dozens of supposed “suicides” of perfectly healthy, young men.

Now, investigation into the death-in-detention in Roches Noires is being re-opened. This is much needed. And no-one finds it odd. The fact that neither the State nor anyone in the entire nation is satisfied with “suicide” as a cause of death, is a signal, we in LALIT believe, that we need a full re-opening of enquiries into all deaths of men in police custody, where there the family believes there is doubt about the cause of their death. In the case of the death of Mr. Ramlagun, the first-ever case against Police Officers under the Anti-Torture Law of 2003 (Criminal Code Amendment Act Section 78), for example, was lost in the Intermediate Court, but the DPP has filed a well-argued appeal (See http://www.lalitmauritius.org/viewnews.php?id=857). The case, however, seems to have disappeared. It is not on the Supreme Court “Cause List”, and it is now a full 9 years since the man’s death.

By looking again at the death of Mr. Ramdhony and of Mr. Ramlagun, and of Kaya as well, we can perhaps begin the process of preventing future deaths-in-detention. Only a few men are actually killed as a result of torture sessions and beating. Many survive, with deep psychological hurt. So, more than anything, it is important that torture is completely stopped. LALIT has suggested 10 ways to stop it. (http://www.lalitmauritius.org/viewnews.php?id=443)
Lindsey Collen
for LALIT, 25 January, 2015.