New Delhi, India - The death of the prime suspect in the Delhi-gang rape case in his jail cell has turned the spotlight on a disturbingly high number of deaths in Indian prisons.
Officials at the high-security Tihar Jail say Ram Singh, 33, committed suicide early on Monday while four other inmates in his cell slept. Singh allegedly used a blanket hanging from a metal rod on the ceiling 2.5 metres high to hang himself, officials say.
Singh was one of six people on trial for the shocking gang-rape on a moving bus of a 23-year-old female student last December in New Delhi. The woman later succumbed to her injuries after she was thrown from the vehicle after her two-hour ordeal.
The case stunned the nation, drawing mass protests against violence against women and calls for new laws to curb such abuses.
"It is an appalling lapse on the part of the prison authorities that a prisoner on the watch list, with other inmates in his cell, hung himself to death and the guards too did not notice anything."
- Suhas Chakma, Asian Centre for Human Rights
After reports of Singh's death flooded out, questions were soon raised about how the bus driver could have committed suicide in a room full of inmates in a maximum security facility with a guard on duty.
Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde admitted a "major lapse in security" over the incident, adding an inquiry would be established to investigate.
Defence lawyer VK Anand alleged Singh was killed. "I suspect foul play in my client's death, and I do not think he could commit suicide. There were no such circumstances that could force him to commit suicide."
Singh's parents also said their son would not have taken his life and demanded a judicial probe. His mother, Kalyani Devi, said her son was repentant and ready to face justice.
"He confessed about his mistake, then why would he commit suicide? He was prepared for any punishment the government would have given him," said Devi.
Though a subsequent autopsy points to Ram Singh's death by hanging, speculation about the exact causes behind his death has not subsided.
"It is an appalling lapse on the part of the prison authorities that a prisoner on the watch list, with other inmates in his cell, hung himself to death and the guards, too, did not notice anything," Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights, told Al Jazeera.
Four custodial deaths a day
Singh's death has highlighted the large number of inmates who die in India's justice system.
Statistics from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) show from 2001 to 2010, 14,231 died in police and prison custody in India - about four deaths per day.
According to the latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau, 1,332 prisoners died in India's jails in 2011 - 93.4 percent of which were "natural deaths". Sixty-eight inmates committed suicide and eight were killed by other prisoners. "Deaths due to firing", "Assault by outside elements", and "others" accounted for the 12 other "unnatural deaths".
But the Asian Centre for Human Rights said in a 2011 report that "a large majority" of custodial deaths "are a direct consequence of torture in custody".
|Police take the gang-rape accused to court in January [AFP]
The actual number of prison deaths is likely far underreported, the group said.
"These deaths reflect only a fraction of the problem with torture and custodial deaths in India, as not all the cases of deaths in police and prison custody are reported to the NHRC," the group said in report titled "Torture in India 2011".
A Ministry of Home Affairs official declined to comment on this story.
Akhilesh Kumar, National Crime Records Bureau chief statistical officer, said, "Our main duty is to compile the numbers and we have no comment over causes ... and what they reflect."
Praful Bidwai, a New Delhi-based human right activist, told Al Jazeera that the impunity of police and prison officials when it comes to violence against inmates must be challenged.
"Custodial maltreatment, torture or killing cannot be curbed unless the deeply criminalised police and law enforcement authorities are made accountable," Bidwai said.
Policing law enforcers
Tihar Jail where Singh died is the largest prison in South Asia - and severely overpopulated. Tihar houses some 12,000 inmates, overshooting its capacity by about 6,000 prisoners. In 2012 Tihar recorded 18 inmate deaths, two of those said to be suicides.
Another problem with India's justice system is the astonishing lack of urgency when it comes to due process. Once ensnared in India's court system, the wait for justice can be an arduous one.
A backload of more than 20 million cases is now before the country's courts. Bail is often refused for serious offences, and there are no mechanisms to compensate the wrongly accused who spent years jail awaiting trial.
Worse still, everyone agrees that conditions inside the jails border on the horrific. Ram Singh's father, for one, has alleged that his son was sodomised by other inmates. Others, including a Delhi professor who spent months in Tihar as a suspect for alleged links to a deadly attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, have narrated their nightmarish experiences.
Since acquitted, Iftikhar Geelani still carries the scars of his hellish incarceration, during which he says he was routinely abused and forced to wear an excreta-splattered shirt with which he was ordered to mop a filty toilet.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera local human rights workers have repeatedly expressed concern about torture and custodial killings. She said most incidents occur in police custody, rather than in prison facilities.
“In jails, we have heard more about ill treatment by fellow inmates or guards, particularly against terror or rape suspects,” Ganguly said.
Tackling the criminality of police and prison authorities is one way to curb custodial torture and death in India's justice system, activists say.
Bidwai said other than meting out stiff punishment for law enforcement officers who abuse prisoners, other methods need to be employed such as sensitivity training towards inmates.
"Custodial maltreatment, torture or killing cannot be curbed unless the deeply criminalised police and law enforcement authorities are made accountable."
- Praful Bidwai, human rights activist
Having neutral observers during interrogations, and disallowing confessions to the police as evidence would also weed out "rogue elements among police and prison authorities", said Bidwai.
"Such steps will send the right message down the line," he added.
However, with much of the public unsympathetic to the plight of those jailed, it will be hard to convince politicians to enact the necessary legislative changes, Chakma of the Asian Centre for Human Rights said.
"The lack of political will to stamp out custodial torture runs across all political parties," said Chakma.