A police claim of self-defence to justify encounter killings must be held to higher standards of proof as the force is armed and trained for combat.

The “encounter” deaths of five persons suspected of having carried out two bank robberies in Chennai is reminiscent of the Batla house encounter. It has once again focused attention on the practice of extrajudicial killings in Tamil Nadu. Reports in The Hindu indicated that the police got a tip-off about where the perpetrators were, after the photograph of one suspect appeared in the media. As a follow-up, the official version goes, policemen visited the premises where the five men were and asked them to surrender.

They in turn fired on the police, which resulted in the five being shot dead. Such a construction poses many uncomfortable questions.

How was the man in the photograph identified as one of the five men in the house? Again, why did the police not wait for the men to surrender? At the time of firing there was nothing to indicate that those killed were involved in the heist. They were purported to have been identified by eyewitnesses after they were killed.

The official claim that the police had to exercise their right of self-defence as they were shot at raises more questions than answers. It sweeps under the carpet disturbing aspects about the modus operandi of the police, in instances when they seem to conduct themselves more like vigilante groups rather than as protectors of the law.

In all cases of encounter deaths, the practice is to claim that the killings were done in self-defence. Under the penal code, the right of private defence is available to all, and no distinction is made between the police and layman. However the taking away of life can be done only under exceptional circumstances. The person seeking the right of private defence must have a reasonable apprehension that the person who is killed, would have killed him or her, or caused grievous hurt, could commit rape, kidnapping or abduction.

Private defence or murder

As a necessary corollary to such defence it is imperative that there is a registration of a First Information Report (FIR) considering such a death as murder or culpable homicide not amounting to murder. In order to claim a right of private defence to cause death, the person must show that there were circumstances giving to reasonable grounds for apprehension that death, or other acts described earlier would have resulted if the right was not exercised. Courts have held that if medical examination of the person reveals superficial or simple injuries, there can be no right to private defence. The violence used to defend oneself must not be unduly disproportionate to the injury that is sought to be averted and should not exceed its legitimate purpose.

But in order to prove that it was a legitimate exercise of the right, it is necessary to have an investigation with the burden of proof shifting to the person who claims this right. This right to private defence cannot be used to punish a suspect.

However FIRs, in most encounter cases, invariably state that on seeing the police the other party opened fire with a view to kill or threatened to kill. The issue of considering whether the death was a result of private defence or was one of murder is never factored in the FIR. Family members of the deceased or human rights activists who wish to reopen such cases find it an uphill task to get even a death certificate or post-mortem report and are thwarted at every stage, often facing threats to their life.

NHRC guidelines

In response to a complaint from the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) relating to encounter killings of suspected members of the Peoples' War Group (PWG), the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued a series of guidelines that required all police stations to immediately record such deaths and hand over investigation to an independent agency such as the CID if the persons concerned were from the same police station. The NHRC guidelines also directed that in cases of specific complaints of fake encounters it was necessary to register and investigate the case by a special agency such as the CID. Family members of the deceased are required to be associated with the magisterial enquiry that must be conducted in encounter deaths and prompt disciplinary action must be taken against errant officers.

While these guidelines were issued in 2003, the commission now seems to be condoning such violence. Recently, the Chairperson expressed his view that extrajudicial executions could solve law and order issues and cited examples of “encounter” deaths of persons suspected of being members of the Mumbai underworld and Maoists.

The Madurai based human rights organisation, People's Watch, has documented at least 23 such instances in the past four years in Tamil Nadu and filed a public interest litigation seeking the appointment of a retired High Court Judge to investigate “encounter deaths” in Tamil Nadu and to register a FIR in every such case. The writ is still pending.

A lay person faces a trial if claiming right to private defence if it results in death. But despite being trained in combat and armed with weapons, those who indulge in encounters do not even face an investigation. Hence, the test for “reasonable apprehension” of imminent danger cannot be the same for such persons and needs to be addressed with a categorical shift in burden of proof in cases of such custodial violence.

(Geeta Ramaseshan is an advocate at the Madras High Court. E-mail: geetaramaseshan@gmail.com)

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