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Kerala custodial death: Mistaken identity behind Sreejith's suspected killing; Human Rights Commission calls act 'inhumane'

The police in Kerala seem to be under the grips of a very malignant trend – to willfully resort to physical abuse with brute force on the citizens, and with every passing day, it seems to have no respite.

The suspected custodial death of 26-year-old Sreejith who was initially accused of trespassing and assault in Varapuzha in Kochi on Monday is the latest episode to rock the state's home department, which is presided over by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan himself.

What makes matters worse is the news which had emerged when this copy was being filed that it was a case of mistaken identity and that the Sreejith, who allegedly died under police custody, was not the person against whom a family in Varapuzha had filed a police complaint.

 Kerala custodial death: Mistaken identity behind Sreejiths suspected killing; Human Rights Commission calls act inhumane

The mother and father of Sreejith, who was allegedly killed in police custody in Kerala. Firstpost/Naveen Nair

On Friday, 6 April, a group of 14 people had attacked the house of one 55-year-old Vasudevan over a local spat leading to his suicide a day later. But Vasudevan's son Vineesh said that the Sreejith who died under police custody was not among those who attacked his house.

"We have not registered any complaint against this particular Sreejith neither do we know whether he had any role in the attack on our house. Our complaint was against another Sreejith, who is the son of one Sasi. I have not even seen the Sreejith who died under police custody. No idea why the cops picked him up," Vineesh told Firstpost.

The presumably iron handed chief minister and his departmental top brass are now struggling to find answers to not just the alleged killing in police custody but also how an innocent young man got branded as a criminal and finally ended up in the cold mortuary of a government hospital.

It also throws the police version out of the window that the grave internal injuries suffered by Sreejith were from a scuffle at Vasudevan's house. If Sreejith was not present in Vasudevan's house, then who could have inflicted the wounds on him? Could it have happened while trying to get a confession out of Sreejith while in police custody?

The jury is still out as far as fixing the responsibility of Sreejith's death is concerned. But the events running up to his death has left a definite imprint of police excess.

This has forced the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) to file a suo motu case on the issue and condemn what it calls the barbarity of the force in unequivocal terms.

"This is an absolutely inhumane act. Just because you wear the uniform does not mean you cannot be humane. I had personally visited the hospital and talked to the doctor who treated Sreejith. The doctor clearly said that 75 percent of Sreejith's small intestine or the jejunum had been ruptured, forcing whatever food he ate to spill into other body parts leading to septicemia. Such an injury can only be caused by extreme force in the abdominal region. This is a clear case of custodial torture," said P Mohana Das, acting chairperson of the Kerala State Human Rights Commission (KSHRC).

The commission is not alone in pointing fingers at the men in khaki (police uniform). Sreejith's family said in one voice that the police had used brute force on the young man.

Shyamala, Sreejith's mother is unable to hide her tears as she recounts the events of Friday night when a police team picked up Sreejith from his home without even saying what wrong he had done.

"They beat him and kicked him in front of us when they came to take him into custody. From then on, we were scared that something will happen to him. Later on, when I went to the station the next morning, I saw him sitting on the bench clutching his tummy. He even asked me water. I tried to give it to him but the inspector did not allow it. Later on, we were told that he was in the hospital. I am certain the cops killed my son," a wailing Shyamala said.

Violations all the way

The postmortem report which was out by Tuesday evening clearly states that Sreejith had died due to septicemia, developed after his intestines had ruptured following intense pressure on his abdomen or in medical parlance 'blunt trauma to abdomen' – something that will make it very tough for the cops to wriggle out of the case. The report had also suggested that the cause of death was cardiac arrest due to immense stress.

The SHRC, which had asked the state director general of police (DGP) to file a report at the earliest had also pointed out the gross violation of Supreme Court guidelines by the policemen while taking Sreejith into custody.

For starters, there is no clarity when or whether Sreejith's arrest was ever recorded. He was picked up around 10:45 pm on Friday and till he was taken to the hospital in the wee hours of Sunday morning with acute pain in the abdomen, police had kept Sreejith inside the station – a detention of well over 24 hours without an arrest, as per the findings of the Commission.

"This is a clear case of violation of all possible norms which need to be followed when an individual is taken into police custody. Why did the police not take him to a hospital for medical examination, something that needs to be done before an arrest? Why were his relatives not informed about his condition if at all they were planning to arrest him? And above all, why did they not produce him before a magistrate even after 24 hours? So, it is an illegal detention which is a violation of basic human rights," the commission pointed out.

Meanwhile, a visibly shaken DGP who met media persons at Thiruvananthapuram has said that the case is a very serious and would be probed by a Special Investigation Team (SIT).

"I have complete empathy for the mother of Sreejith and what she has said. It is a very serious allegation against the police which will be investigated threadbare by a team that has a track record of very high credibility. We will get to the bottom of this and will not spare anyone," said Lokanath Behera, DGP, Kerala Police.

The police, meanwhile, is doing everything it can to counter the claim of mistaken identity. It even brought up a counter-claim late into Tuesday evening that Vineesh's statement was recorded in the presence of Sreejth and that Vineesh had identified him as well, something which the latter said is baseless.

Political fallouts

The political ramifications of Sreejith's custodial death could be highly damaging for the ruling Left Front. For one, he is a BJP local worker and secondly, as of now, he seems innocent having nothing to do with the crime that he has been accused of.

With the Chengannur bypolls to be held soon, the BJP will for sure make this an election issue.

"Obviously, this will be an election issue in Chengannur. The people should know the real face of Vijayan and his police. Never in the history of the state has a situation come where a junior officer and policemen do whatever they want in spite of the DGP's orders for restraint. It shows that police stations across Kerala are run by local CPM leaders who are Vijayan's men and not by the system. This is atrocious," MS Kumar, state BJP spokesperson, said.

BJP's allegations find echo inside the CPM as well. In the last state conference of the party at Thrissur, Vijayan, considered the numero uno in the party, himself took tremendous flak for the way the home ministry had been conducting itself.

Even inside the Left Front, the coalition partners have been highly critical of the conduct of the men in uniform and the inability of the chief minister to successfully apply the Left's policy of governance in the home department. But nothing has changed since then, nor anyone has raised dissent to the police's functioning.

"See, not just in the CPM's state conference but even in the CPI state conference there was strong criticism from within the party on how the home department was being run. But the issue here is who will bell the cat? Vijayan is still the omnipotent force who has created a structure in the party where hardly a voice is raised against his style of functioning. Even the CPI, apart from making a few noises, shies away from an open debate. Add to this the gross inefficiency of Vijayan as an administrator, you have this terrible state of affairs," Joseph C Mathew, noted political commentator told Firstpost.

The Congress too is on a war path regarding the police excesses in the state. Thrice the party-led Opposition had stalled the state Assembly over various issues related to the state police's excesses, forcing the chief minister to concede on more than one occasion that that the police had indeed gone overboard with their highhandedness.

"Since this government came to power, police brutality has become the order of the day. But hardly any action has been taken. That is why the Congress party strongly feels that the need of the hour is to investigate Sreejith's death with help of an independent agency. There is no trust in a police investigation," said VD Satheesan, vice-president of the Congress party in Kerala.

The latest update in the case is that three policemen, who had gone to take Sreejith into custody, have been suspended. This raises the suspicion whether the action was being taken against the cops for taking into custody the wrong person and is the police finally acknowledging that a mistake was made?

That no action has been taken against the sub-inspector or others present in the station while he was allegedly tortured is being explained with the excuse of an ongoing investigation.

One will have to wait for the detailed investigation to start to see in which direction this case will go.

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Updated Date: Apr 11, 2018 11:55:38 IST