India’s Anti-Torture Law Cloaked in Secrecy

It seems like a “given” that the freedom from torture is a right guaranteed by all democratic societies in the 21st century. But the reality is that over the past decade, in many democratic countries, including Pakistan and the United States, authorities have turned a blind eye, or in some cases openly endorsed torture, when politically expedient.

So the news that the Indian cabinet has signed off on handing over the country’s first anti-torture legislation to the parliament for a vote should spark cheers, right? Not exactly.

The Prevention of Torture Bill 2010 was drafted without public discussion, and no details on its content have been released. It is based on an earlier 2008 draft that defined torture and proscribed punishments for perpetrators, but which was broadly unpopular with rights activists, according to a report released this week (.pdf) by the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR).

Rights advocates argue that torture by police and other security forces in India is rampant, and the secretive aura surrounding the bill’s passage will do little to instill fear of repercussions among those committing the acts. The ACHR report contains government data showing that deaths in custody increased by 19.8 percent between 2000 and 2008, while prison deaths rose by 50.4 percent.

At the same time, the rights community has applauded the government for its willingness to take on the issue amid continuing conflict in Kashmir and an increasingly bloody campaign against Maoist rebels. The law will also pave the way for India to ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment, which it signed 13 years ago.

Over the last decade, issues related to torture, detention and prisoners’ rights have gained increased attention, primarily as a result of the ongoing War on Terror. Rights advocates have applied intense scrutiny to practices by governments not normally associated with such issues. The United States, Great Britain, Canada and Poland, among others, have been blasted for practices that human rights advocates usually highlight in places like Burma, Belarus or the Sudan.

In India, as elsewhere, local populations have been divided on the issue, with significant percentages of people supporting the use of harsher means by security forces. Repeated polling between 2007 and 2009 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that U.S. public opinion remained consistent and evenly divided on the use of torture. A 2008 poll (.pdf) of people in 19 countries found great disparities in opinion about the use of torture. But overall only 57 percent of respondents said torture should be banned outright.

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