In what is touted to be a move to curb the rising number of crimes against women, the Centre on Thursday rolled out a National Registry of Sexual Offenders (NRSO), a massive database of convicted sexual offenders from across the nation.
In doing so, India joined a club of eight other countries who maintain a dedicated database on sexual offenders, including the US — the only country to keep its database in public domain even as the demand to review the policy grows. Other countries to maintain a database of sexual offenders are Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa,Trinidad and Tobago and United Kingdom, where such data of convicted sex offenders is maintained, but is purely for the consumption of the law enforcement authorities. India too has said that the database will remain accessible to law enforcement agencies only.
What is the NRSO?
The database will have personal details, including residential address, fingerprints, photo-identification, Aadhaar numbers, DNA sample and PAN number of not only convicted criminals but also of those accused of the crime or against whom an FIR is registered. However, the details of arrested and chargesheeted offenders can be accessed only by officers with the requisite clearance, The Indian Express reported. The government is also mulling over introducing the list of juvenile offenders, the newspaper reported. But a final decision on the same will be taken at a later time.
The register was proposed to be formed at the same Cabinet meet in April, when the promulgation of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2018 (which recently became a law) to award death sentence to child rapists was passed. The National Crime Records Bureau will be tasked to maintain the database and profile of sexual offenders. It will collect information on more than 4.5 lakh cases from the past fifteen years, details of which will be collected from jails across the country.
Following the US style, the database will classify offenders based on the 'severity of threat' they cause to the society. According to The Hindu, the data will be stored for 15 years in the case of those who pose a low danger, 25 years for those posing "moderate danger" and lifetime for "habitual offenders, violent criminals, convicts in gangrape and custodial rapes."
The move came ostensibly after massive public outrage over the recent incidents of rapes, including the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Jammu and Kashmir's Kathua.
Idea not free of flaws
There was no clarity on the extent to which the state plans to use this data. PTI had reported in the past that it will be "regularly shared with states and Union Territories for tracking, monitoring and investigation, including verification of antecedents by police."
However, in countries that maintain such a database, sexual offenders are typically required to periodically check in with the local police, informing them about their place of residence, recent whereabouts, place of employment, and provide details of their physical description. Moreover, governments often place severe restrictions on where a previously convicted sex offender can reside and work. This could seriously impede the process of rehabilitation and recovery of criminals and also leave scope for lifetime of harassment by local authorities, even after an accused has served his or her sentence.
Inclusion of juvenile offenders in the list at a later stage is another problematic avenue.
Another issue lies in the definition of the term sexual offences. The draft guidelines reportedly include rape, voyeurism, stalking and aggravated sexual assault. However, as this article in The Hindu points out, the Protection of Children From Sexual Offences Act, 2012 criminalises consensual sexual intercourse with minors and between minors. This could mean that a person could possibly face the wrath of objecting parents and live with the consequences of being on the register for a lifetime for having a consensual sexual relationship.
Besides, the government may have plans to hand out contracts to private entities for technical support and maintenance of the database. The NCRB had floated a Request for Proposal (RFP) for selection of agency for "development and implementation of NRSO". This puts the privacy of convicted, or even accused individuals at a greater risk.
However, a home ministry official told The Hindu that the private entity will not be involved in actually handling the data. "The private operator will only design the platform, the input and management of data will be available with law enforcement agencies. The data pertaining to passports has been developed by a private party, it is being run efficiently," an MHA spokesperson told the newspaper.
Move gets support from WCD ministry, child and women rights' groups
Union Minister of Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi has been a long-time advocate of such a register. When the 38-year-old Sunil Rastogi was arrested earlier this year for raping and sexually assaulting minors, he confessed to the cops that he had assaulted around 500 girls in the states of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Rastogi was arrested, jailed and then released only to repeat this crime. Union minister Maneka Gandhi lamented that if an SOR was in place, many of Rastogi’s crime could have been prevented.
Gandhi pointed out that the listing of names of sexual offenders and placing it in the public domain would definitely act as a deterrent.
Sunita Krishna, who runs the NGO Prajwala which claims it has rescued and rehabilitated more than 10,000 rape victims, told Firstpost that she suppports the move. She believes only "the public naming and shaming of offenders" will stop this sharp increase in rape.
Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi had also urged the government to push for a registry of sexual offenders, propagating the 'name and shame' approach in dealing with sexual predators. "Name and shame them. Sexual offenders should not be accepted as employees anywhere," he had said in the past.
Experts point out flaws in system, say move will discourage victims from reporting crime
However, many rights' organisations and activists have pointed out serious flaws in implementing such a system. Organisations such as the Human Right Watch and ACLU have spoken out against the sex offenders registry, claiming that it negates the concept of rehabilitation and perpetuates social stigma.
"Government statistics (in the US) indicate that most sexual abuse of children is committed by family members or trusted authority figures, and by someone who has not previously been convicted of a sex offence."
"In India, too, children are often sexually abused by people known to them and regarded as authority figures. The government must ensure implementation of existing measures...including enforcement of the POCSO Act," Jayshree Bajoria, author of Human Rights Watch report documenting barriers to justice for sexual assault survivors in India, told PTI.
"Once such a registry comes into being, I am concerned that it might lead to people not reporting rapes or sexual offences, because most of them are by people known to the victims. Also, once you are on the registry, it will mean no jobs, no chance to rehabilitate. Across the world such registries have failed to act as a deterrent," said Bharti Ali of HAQ Centre for Child Rights.
An HRW report, in fact, states that such offender lists "may do more harm than good".
Activists in India say that the talk of these lists is a knee-jerk reaction to cases such as the Kathua and Unnao rape cases, both of which involved minor victims, and is intended to satisfy the public rage against sexual abuse by strangers.
"If it is a family member, a person known to the family of the victim, which is true in most cases in India, will this work? I have my doubts. The registry operates most aggressively in the US. However, there is very little evidence in that country to show that it has helped to prevent sexual assaults against children," said Supreme Court advocate KV Dhananjay.
Speaking to Hindustan Times, Apar Gupta, a lawyer who works on privacy issues, even opined that there is no empirical evidence to support that the law actually helped bring down crime in countries where it has been existence for over a decade.
"Many international studies have shown that instead of preventing repeat offences, maintaining such a database has an adverse affect as person accused of sex crime does not have any incentive to reform. His identity as a rapist is established for life even after he has completed his sentence," he said.
With inputs from PTI
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Updated Date: Sep 20, 2018 21:19:25 IST