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Stan Swamy’s demise brings custodial deaths into focus; tally over 1,000 in last six months

NEW DELHI: Following the death of 84-year-old tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy, this newspaper has found that a total of 1,067 people died in custody in the first five months of this year. This data comes from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). In other words, nearly six persons every day have been dying in judicial custody across the country.

More than Rs 1.2 crore has been recommended to the next of kin of the deceased in the cases of deaths in judicial custody. As many as 3,003 such cases were pending adjudication before NHRC as on June 6. Besides Rs 1.2 crore, the rights panel also recommended Rs 3 lakh as relief to the family of a juvenile who died in custody.

February saw maximum overall fatalities — 263, while most deaths in police custody were registered in March — 16. The highest number of deaths of 255 in judicial custody were registered in February. If one were to compare this with data for the previous year (minus November, for which data is not available), it turns out that a total of 1,378 such deaths were reported. Of this, 83 died in police custody.

Also noteworthy is the fact that of the 1,067 deaths, 62 were reported in police custody, while 299 more such cases of people dying in police custody are pending before the human rights panel.

These exclude cases of custodial torture, abuse of power, illegal arrest and police encounters. The NHRC awarded a maximum of Rs 56.50 lakh in compensation in March. In February, only Rs 2.90 lakh were disbursed as compensation to the next of kin of those who died in judicial custody.

The rights panel had disbursed Rs Rs 1,20,40,000 in compensation for such deaths till June 6 this year. Swamy was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in October, 2020, for his alleged role in the Bhima-Koregaon violence in 2018 and his links with the banned organisation CPI (Maoist).

His case got prominence when in November, Swamy who was suffering from Parkinson’s, asked for permission to drink water out of a straw. The investigating agency had taken 20 days to file its reply.

Subsequently, in May this year, Swamy complained about his worsening condition, hearing loss, intense lumbar and abdominal pain to the Bombay High Court. The jail responded that he had “a stable pumping heart and good circulation of blood.”

He then pleaded for medical bail. The NIA claimed that medical documents filed were not conclusive proof.