Delhi:On 11 November, 2001, Mukesh, a helper at a small eatery near Inter- state bus terminus, Delhi, was found dead. The next day the police arrested Rahul, who worked at the tea stall near the eatery, as an accused in the case. Rahul was 15-years-old then. In 2004, a trial court awarded him life imprisonment for murdering Mukesh.
In March last year, the Delhi High Court acquitted Rahul. The court ruled that he was a juvenile, between 15 and 16 years, on the day of crime and should have been tried under the Juvenile Justice (JJ) Act, 2000. But by then, he had been incarcerated for 8 years, nearly three times more than the maximum period prescribed for juveniles under the JJ Act.
According to the JJ Act, juvenile accused are to be tried by Juvenile Justice Boards (JJBs). Those found guilty are sent to observation homes where attempts are made to reform or rehabilitate them.
But the ground reality is somewhat different. Like Rahul, hundreds of juveniles, shown as adults, are languishing in prisons across the country- a gross violation of JJ Act, the objective of which was to protect the rights of ‘children in conflict with law.’
The response to an RTI petition by HAQ Centre for Child Rights shows that between October 2010 and August 2011, 114 inmates lodged in Tihar jail, Delhi, could prove they were juveniles and were transferred to observation homes.
Last month, the high court directed National Commission for Protection of Child Rights to conduct an inquiry regarding the number of juveniles lodged in Delhi’s prisons, nine jails in the Tihar complex and the Rohini jail.
In three visits made so far, surveyors have identified more than 200 probable juveniles in Tihar. They have been segregated and will undergo age verification test. Those ultimately found below 18 will be transferred to JJBs.
“The fact that almost half of those interviewed during the survey were found to be children is a matter of grave concern,” Anant Asthana, who filed a letter petition in Delhi HC based on which the court ordered the survey, said.
“The situation in other states may be worse,” he said.
In January, the Karnataka state commission for protection of child rights found 22 minors lodged in central prison.
Last month, Commonwealth Human Righs Association (CHRI), an NGO working on prison reforms found 40 juvenile prisoners in Dumdum and Presidency Correctional Homes in West Bengal.
Rajasthan’s Alwar district jail had four juveniles, as per a CHRI study in November 2010.
A 2006 survey done by chief judicial magistrate, Assam, found more than 50 juveniles lodged in state prisons.
The website of Madhya Pradesh prisons department showed 2564 as the number of prisoners in 17- 25 years age- group. Later, the authorities changed it to 18- 25 years, said Soumya Bhaumik, lawyer, who has worked in prisons in Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.
In 2010, CEHAT, a Mumbai-based NGO found 10 female juveniles in Maharashtra's prisons.
A welfare officer with a JJB spoke about the psychological impact on juveniles lodged in prisons.
“While in Tihar, older inmates make children scrub toilets and do all sorts of odd jobs. They are harassed day and night. When the same juveniles are transferred to observation homes, they vent out their frustration on other inmates. They feel that now is their chance to suppress others. They behave in a manner they saw older inmates behaving in prisons,” the officer, who asked not to be named, said.
The judge, according to JJ Act (section 7, rule 12), should prima facie decide if the accused is a juvenile. Even courts have, time and again, fixed the responsibility of age verification on magistrates.
Twice in 1983 and in a case in 2007, the Supreme Court took note of juveniles landing up in prisons. In 1983, the apex court ruled, “Whenever a case is brought before the magistrate and the accused appears to be aged below 21 years, before proceedings with the trial or under taking an inquiry, an inquiry must be made about the age of the accused on the date of occurrence.”
Sunil Gupta, spokesperson of Tihar prison said, “Verifying age of accused is the job of courts. We just receive inmates as sent to us by various courts.”
Experts believe that police is to be equally blamed as it is the first line of contact for the alleged offender.
“It is a common practice for police to show the age of juveniles as 18 plus. Also, they tell the accused that if they disclose before the court that they are minors, they will face harsher punishment,” said Chandra Suman, legal aid counsel who specialises in juvenile justice litigation.
In May last, Delhi police commissioner B K Gupta took note of the issue and issued a circular directing the state police regarding determination of age of juveniles in conflict with law.
However, for some like Rahul, these are actions that are too little and too late.
(some names have been changed to protect identity).
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Updated Date: Mar 27, 2012 15:06:59 IST