The Delhi High Court on Wednesday held that the killing of 38 Muslims in Hashimpura in 1987 by the Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) personnel was a case of custodial death.
“In the present case, although the victims were not taken to an enclosed place by the PAC, they were unlawfully detained, kept in a PAC truck and taken to two places and asked to keep their heads down and not allowed to move,” a Bench of Justices S. Muralidhar and Vinod Goel said.
“This is sufficient proof for this court to conclude that they were kept in unlawful custody by the accused purporting to discharge their official functions when in fact they were clearly acting illegally. The deaths of the victims, in the present case, are custodial deaths,” the Bench ruled. The High Court noted the submission of the National Human Rights Commission that ‘custody’ extends beyond the mere spatial construct of prisons or lock-ups.
The NHRC had pointed out, during the trial before the High Court, that many of the victims are survived by women who are either illiterate or ignorant of the State procedure.
The commission had argued that merely having a scheme for compensation would not serve the purpose unless the persons entitled to relief are made aware of their rights and are able to access it.
Accepting the NHRC’s suggestion, the High Court recommended that every State Legal Services Authority should designate a Nodal Officer to address the needs of the victims’ families in the case of custodial killings or State excesses.
“The procedure put in place should ensure that such victims or the families are able to access and seek relief under the scheme and that such relief should not be limited to monetary compensation but other relief respecting the rights to basic survival and dignity of such families,” the Bench said.
The High Court also referred to the right of the victim to know the truth and “the right for the truth to be known as an integral facet of right to justice.”
The Bench noted that in this case, the relatives of the victims who died as a result of “the brutal and bone-chilling action” of the PAC remained in the dark about not only the fate of the victims themselves, but also about the steps taken to investigate the case and unearth the truth.
“The victims who disappeared on May 22, 1987 never returned. Even those dead bodies which were fished out from the canal were not returned to their families,” it said.
“It is expected that the State will take the necessary steps to put in place a working mechanism that can address the above concerns and make law enforcement agencies accountable and answerable,” the Bench said.
The High Court remarked that the manner in which the law enforcement officials “frustrated the cause of justice by weeding out important records and not gathering evidence in good time in the present case raises considerable doubts about the ability of a law enforcement agency to carry out an impartial and independent investigation when the persons accused of the crimes are members of the agency itself.”