In the wake of the pandemic and the alleged custodial deaths in Sattankulam, police personnel claim they have been facing too many difficulties in carrying out their duties. From arresting the accused, taking them for medical examination and producing them before jurisdictional court to admitting them to prisons, everything has become more difficult because of these two factors, they say.
An Inspector of Police, who has handled more than a dozen arrests and remands in Chennai city over the last two months, says that after the deaths of Benicks and Jayaraj at Sattankulam, most personnel are hesitant to take risks or coercive action while conducting interrogations. “Even in hospitals and courts, when we take the accused for medical examination or remand, the doctors or judicial officers concerned, instead of asking about the case details, carry out a thorough enquiry with the accused to determine whether they have any bruises and if the police had beaten them,” he says. “For interrogation, we have to personally enquire with the accused. To achieve that purpose, one should not place a screen or mirror or lens. Is that possible with COVID-19? We are in a fix, unable to get information from those we arrest,” the officer adds.
An Assistant Commissioner of Police says, “We face too many difficulties nowadays while arresting and remanding the accused. We have to produce an accused before a Magistrate within 24 hours. Last week, when we produced an accused for remand, the judicial officer took three hours and asked the accused to remove his clothes. The officer checked thoroughly whether the accused had any fresh injuries. Before the onset of the pandemic, the remand procedure used to get over within five minutes.”
In normal circumstances, the police would have to take the accused for a medical examination before admission into prison and it would be over in the outpatient ward itself, within a few minutes. Now the person should be subjected to a COVID-19 test, which is time-consuming. Recently, one man accused of robbery escaped after the police removed his handcuffs to facilitate a COVID-19 test. He was nabbed subsequently. In a couple of cases, police personnel claimed they had contracted the virus while arresting the accused and interrogating them
Another police officer says, “We cannot ascertain whether the accused has COVID-19 before the arrest. They have to be nabbed and brought under our custody. There is no guarantee that he or she will not transmit the disease. There are no norms to test within the mandatory 24 hours.”
Police personnel were facing hardship even to buy food or tea for the accused as most of the hotels, and tea shops were closed for months. They had to travel long distances with the accused to transfer them from one sub-jail to another. “Now we cannot straightaway lodge the accused in the Central prison in Puzhal due to the pandemic. Authorities admit them in sub-jails first for the quarantine period. Last week, an accused was remanded by 5 p.m. We had to take the accused to Ponneri sub-jail and thereafter to Tituttani and Tiruvallur for lodging. Prison officials insist on a written undertaking that the accused would be escorted from the prison to the hospital if the results come out positive. It is really tough for us,” a senior police officer says.
Meanwhile, human rights activists point out that incidents of the accused suffering broken limbs after ‘slipping in the bathroom’ have come to a stop. Andrew Sesuraj.M., State convenor of the Tamil Nadu Child Rights Watch, says, “There is an attitudinal change among the police officers. Senior police officers strictly monitor subordinate level officers to ensure all rules are followed while effecting arrest and remand. This should continue.”