Every thinking person now concedes that there is violence perpetrated by the police against detainees. The death of Rajesh Ramlogun should not have been necessary to waken us to this reality. But, in any event, we have reached a time when denial is no longer an option. Even for the cruelest of people, even for the most blind. Everyone has come to agree that brutality and torture must be stopped. The pre-primary-level argument that the absence of violent policemen is the cause of crime is now exposed in all its stupidity and complicity. It is like what parents used to say to a four-year-old refusing to come in at mealtime: Ala gete. Lapolis pe vinn trap twa. But parents were only joking. Whereas until recently this argument was still masquerading as respectable
But no longer so. There has been change. Where has the change come from? How did we get to the beginning of the end of the cover-up of police brutality? Let's look at the recent past.
I was in Court on 24 January when Constable Cheung said under oath that the late Rajesh Ramlogun had been brought by the MCIT team to Alcatraz with mark bate, mark lor so figir kote gos. He had already noted this down formally, as he should have, in the Police Diary Book. I was in Court to hear the calm, brave Widow Bindoo Ramlogun say to the Magistrate: Lekip Raddoa ti pran mo mari, zot ti bat li, zot ti tuy li. Mo ule lazistis. I saw Me. Viren Ramchurn continuing his work as advocate, promptly, professionally, rationally. These three people are amongst those who are contributing, by their honesty and courage, to exposing and thus putting a halt to the hideous beatings and torture that go on in police custody. Cover-ups are just no longer on. Dr. Gujjalu, pathologist now retired from the police department, points to the wounds and blows that killed Mr. Ramgolun.
All these testimonies come after a new situation has gradually been created over decades. Lalit has, since the death in detention of Serge Victorine when he was re-arrested after the prison mutiny in 1979, kept a register of deaths in detention. The violence continued, but was constantly exposed. The women's movement, over the years, analyzed the shocking similarity between domestic violence and police violence. Both are within four walls, often justified by otherwise respectable people, involve humiliation and sexual innuendo, and mark the victim for life. Upright lawyers, over the years, have taken individual cases into the public realm. Sharp magistrates have exposed brutality and torture in their judgments. Press reporters have meticulously noted down victims' testimony and published it.
Then came the death in police custody of Kaya in 1999. A nation-wide mass rebellion took place. All the thousands of victims and their friends rose up with one aim: to cry out against police violence.
Widow Veronique Topize has for seven years stood firm in her quest for the truth in her husband's death. She has refused medals. She has refused money. And there are now two key documents that dissect the events: Jean Claude Bibi's booklet on the injustice of Kaya's arrest and death, and Dr. Ram Seegobin's on how the medical evidence clearly points to a violent death. And since Kaya's death, there have been the courageous public denunciations by a series of men who have survived torture, including Cehl Meeah, Jerry Cadine, Bernard Maigrot, Devananda Subbaroyan, Roland Said. The association JUSTICE, set up specifically to oppose violence by officers of the State, has contributed to making the abuse more visible. And recently, other associations have increasingly taken a firm stand against police violence.
The State has been forced to respond. It set up first the Police Complaints Bureau, which turned out a complete farce, but nevertheless by its very existence ends up pointing a finger at police violence. Then the National Human Rights Commission which, being neither independent nor powerful, often even complaisant and weak, opening itself to severe criticism in Mauritius and at the UN Human Rights Committee, has nevertheless seen annual report after annual report draw attention to police violence.
And yet impunity has continued to reign. It continued, even while the watershed was nearing. Torture continued unabated. Maybe it worsened after Police officer Raddoa, who had become a symbol of police impunity, was re-instated and promoted. But there has been this gradual build-up in the public of a refusal of police brutality.
So, the time has come for us to act. Government, political parties, professional bodies all have a role in refusing to collude with torture. We must act. And now is a good time. If we do succeed in abolishing torture, then the 46 deaths will not have been completely in vain. Their families can, in their mourning, draw this consolation.
Here are some of the changes we propose, most of them cost nothing. Yet, taken together, they will end this brutality.
1. The Government has already expressed concern. The Prime Minister has an opportunity to reverse his legacy of having re-appointed Raddoa to a position where he is in contact with detainees. By acting now, Government can convert its concern about police violence into action:
a. Remind the police that our legal system, after centuries of peoples' struggles against inquisitions that rely on confessions, is now based on the right to silence of the accused. The reason for this principle is that it prevents torture. The prosecution thus has to prove its case without the help of an accused. The right to silence needs to be protected by the presence of a lawyer, called in the minute a detainee is arrested. Government must pay a lawyer from a list in cases where a detainee has no lawyer. Natural law holds that the family be immediately informed of an arrest and of the place of detention. Magistrates and judges should be legally bound to reject a confession until it be made before them, as in India, and to place the onus on the prosecution to prove that any confession presented in Court was freely made,as in the USA since the Miranda judgment in 1966 that ended the third degree practices notorious in the USA until that date.
b.The immediate suspension and, where appropriate, arrest of officers involved in a death in detention, as is the case in fatal motor accidents for all citizens.
An immediate independent Government enquiry into where all the tools of torture are stored, how they are acquired and by whom. These items, like cagoules and electric shock tools, should be sought, found and destroyed, as a symbol of the recognition that there was torture and that it is no longer acceptable.
c.Government must immediately repeal the relevant sections of Acts that permit police to hold suspects incommunicado, POTA and DDA, as it is this "zone d'ombre" behind which torture festers.
d.Government must legislate to permit policemen to unionize, so that the command structure does not bind them all in to an omerta around torture.
e.An independent inquiries office must be set up outside the police to investigate police violence and violations of rights.
2. Political parties in opposition have also expressed concern. They should at once take their responsibility too and stop the dangerous practice of crying law and order, law and order. The MMM has been guilty of this since 1983, attacking the Interior Minister ,i.e. Prime Minister, as being the cause of hold-ups, murders, rapes, drug-dealing and burglaries because the police aren't being tough enough. This kind of political opportunism is what, in other countries, identifies a party as extreme right, even tending towards fascist. We should remember that a law and order ticket that brought the Nazis to power. The slogan knowingly accords moral "justification" for police violence, while at the same time giving a mo-dord for criminal elements in the party's support base that the more crime the more advantage to the Opposition.
3. Magistrates should follow a set ethical protocol to protect any accused who informs them of assault by officers of the State. Magistrate Denis Mootoo, when he put out arrest warrants for police officers in the Ramlogun case, was setting the tone for this kind of ethical protocol. Magistrates, when they hold their monthly meeting, should take the initiative to draw up and approve this code.
4. Doctors, who by profession care for patients, should also develop a professional protocol for how to deal ethically with patients who happen to be in custody. Doctors, as a corps, must recognize that there is torture going on and that they are often tricked into being accomplices to it. For example, it is positively dangerous for doctors to allow themselves to be misled by police officers into treating a detainee for alcoholism when he is dying of head wounds inflicted on him in custody. The Medical Council should come up with this "protocol". It should also support calls for autopsies after deaths in detention to be performed by doctors not under the police department or other occult pressure.
5. The National Human Rights Commission members should, at the very least, use the powers given to them to propose the massive changes necessary in the NHRC Act, even in order to prevent the NHRC itself, of all ironies, from being drawn in as part of a covering-up mechanism. The Commission should now, after 3 years existence, be in a position to stop falling for the cheap tricks that police officers use to cover up torture e.g. having the man who handcuffs a detainee and puts the cagoule over his head i.e. who the detainee will later identify) be down on intentionally erroneous police records as off duty on that day.
6. The DPP must institute criminal charges for suspicious deaths in detention against the police officers directly in charge. In court, the police officers can defend themselves, or remain silent, like everyone else. The DPP must himself publicly give arguments for his decision to prosecute or not to prosecute.
7. The commercial radio and press have been key institutions in unveiling police brutality. Though some individual editorialists did in the past justify beating. In future, perhaps editorialists could measure more carefully the way their columns inciting police to make arrests ,after concerts, for example, are taken by policemen to justify violence and torture. Press reporters, perhaps through Media Trust, could strategize on how to avoid re-enforcing the dangerous myth that crime is caused by a lack of "strong-arm police tactics, read "torture. Ethically, journalists as a corps, should help peers to avoid falling into the donan-donan trap when they procure information from inside police, then help cover-up torture to keep the information flowing. Journalists could also do investigative work, into where the cagoules are kept , in which drawer of whose desk?. Perhaps inform readers as to who it is who sews them, where are they washed and hung up to dry after they get bloodied? Readers would be interested to know who is the officer who operates the electric shock apparatus?
8. Police officers, also a professional corps, should ensure no member arrests anyone for a non-arrestable offense, nor arrests anyone without reasonable prima facie evidence against him or her. It must be made a self-protecting habit to immediately note down signs of injury on a detainee handed to them. Police officers who oppose torture must expose those who use it. Police officers who know who killed Kaya, for example, should come forward and testify publicly. For the sake of history. It is not too late. At the same time, police officers must militate for the right to unionise, so that, through this professional body, they can develop ethics. In the meantime, the Police Federation should take on these functions, and continue to call for all detainees to be granted a state-reimbursed lawyer. And the Police Commissioner should hold daily press briefings in high profile cases so as to limit rumours and manipulation of public opinion.
9. Parliamentarians must put public pressure on Government for it to bring the changes above. MP's must step in to protect detainees from their constituency.
10. The Bar Council must develop a prompt and rational procedure for all lawyers, when confronted with police abuse of detainees. It could propose procedures that facilitate victims during their testimony, during criminal charges v/s the state, and in civil cases for damages. The Bar Council could set up a permanent sub-committee on human rights, as most Bar Councils in the world do, and take firm stands when its members are prevented from working properly by state officers, whether by being denied access to clients or in any other way.
We should do all this, while, at the same time, militating for a job for everyone, unemployment benefit, an economic future for every family, a home for all, and during the process of aiming collectively at this, we can expect crime rates to fall. It is a caring society, one that endeavours to ensure more equality in the future, that diminishes violent crime. There is no short cut. And on the contrary, a violent police force increases violent crime, both directly ,by adding to statistics on wounds and blows, homicide and murder) and indirectly ,by raising the general level of violence amongst those detained, when released). We must halt state violence now.
For Lalit, 28 January 2006.