Urgent Appeals File: Mousumi Ari-A human body preserved like a fish & a rotted justice system in West Bengal

Asian Human Rights Commission & Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha

In October 2003, 17-year-old Mousumi Ari, of Narayanpur Village, West Bengal, was murdered by her in-laws. Whereas the role of the state personnel should have been to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators, in fact they did exactly the opposite, as one of the accused was attached to the investigating police station as a member of the Home Guard. When officers from Kakdwip police station, led by Sub Inspector (SI) A K Ghosh, arrived at the scene, rather than investigating properly, they removed Mousumi’s clothes and put fresh clothes on her body. They took away the bloodstained clothes in a packet. They failed to undertake their primary duty, that of sending her to the hospital for medical examination. In fact, although they arrived at the scene on the morning of October 25, they did not dispatch the body, according to records, until 12:45pm. It may even be that when the police arrived, Mousumi was still alive, however, their neglect resulted in her death. The police also failed to collect blood and other evidence on the scene, and failed to secure the place; subsequently, the bloodstains on the floor and wall were washed away.

The police insisted that the case was a suicide and they would lodge a report to that effect. But Laxmi Sahoo, Mousumi’s mother, refused to accept their judgment, so the police took her, the body of her daughter, and other relatives to the police station. They were kept there until late night, when finally Mousumi’s uncle, Subodh Sahoo, was forced to write a complaint, as dictated by the police, stating that Mousumi had killed herself. Laxmi Sahoo was forced to sign the paper. Five in-laws were then arrested, but charged only with causing the suicide of Mousumi (Kakdwip PS Case No. 101; Unnatural Death Case No. 73/2003, 25 October 2003). <?xml:namespace prefix = o /><?xml:namespace prefix = o />

 

The inquest into Mousumi’s body was conducted at the police station on the same day, without the presence of a doctor to declare the body legally dead, as required by the law. Mousumi’s relatives were also not called to the inquest, although they were being held in the police station at the time. D K Kanoongo, Executive Magistrate, conducted the inquest, and in his report he found there were no injuries on the body. The body itself was not received at the morgue until October 26 at 1pm. This means that the police kept the body in their possession for 24 hours without consulting any doctor. Finally, according to records, at 1:45pm on October 26, Dr G Biswas, Medical Officer of Diamond Harbour Hospital, examined the body. He also submitted a report that there was no injury, except one mark on her neck.

 

Who was it who took the necessary steps to obtain justice in this case? Not the police, not the magistrate, not the autopsy surgeon; it was the mother and aunt of the deceased girl. Rural villagers involved in the fish trade, they knew only that a grave wrong was being committed against them by the state. Instead of cremating Mousumi’s body upon getting it back from the morgue, and against all religious customs and social traditions, they took the unprecedented step of covering the body with plastic and burying it in an eight-feet-deep pit filled with 70 kilograms of salt. Just as fish could be preserved with salt, they concluded, so could their loved one’s body be preserved, in the hope that some kind of new investigation would follow.

 

It was this drastic step by the two women that allowed for what happened next. After Mousumi’s father returned from sea, he obtained help to draft letters to state officials, and in December the case was brought to the attention of local human rights organisation, Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (Masum). After investigations, Masum went to senior police and the Chairman of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission, without result. Finally, through its intervention, the Sub Divisional Judicial Magistrate ordered a new post mortem on December 20.

 

On 2 January 2004, Mousumi’s body was exhumed in the presence of senior police officers, but remarkably, the same Executive Magistrate who conducted the first inquest held the second inquest, and again found nothing. He and the local police officers then made an attempt to get the post mortem also conducted at the same hospital. However, Masum successfully lobbied government officials for the post mortem to be held at the Calcutta Morgue. There, a team of doctors, led by Associate Professor L K Ghosh, Department of Forensic and State Medicine, examined the body on January 3. The team found numerous injuries on the body and concluded that death was caused by “forceful impact on head with hard blunt agent or hard rough surface”. The team also could not find any mark on the neck as indicated in the first report, but noted that the first doctor had failed to properly examine the victim.

 

After the second autopsy, police added a charge of murder against the five accused. However, the final investigation report still suggests a case of suicide, not murder. The report includes 36 witness statements all carefully crafted by the Investigating Officer SI Ghosh, which are part of his work to pervert the course of justice, rather than to undertake a real investigation and accurately record genuine witness statements. The times and dates of events in various official documents also do not correspond. The contradictions contained in the final report are sufficient to lead to an acquittal of the accused on the benefit of the doubt, particularly when witnesses taking the stand in court are likely to make statements that further contradict what has been recorded by the police.

 

In a letter to Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, the Asian Human Rights Commission, in calling for the immediate suspension from service of the said officers and reinvestigation of the case, has pointed to some of the problems in the case. These include that,

 

  1. The police failed to send Mousumi’s body immediately to a hospital, as is their primary duty, to determine if she was even dead at the time of their arrival. In fact, the police appear to have kept the body for over 24 hours.

 

  1. The police removed evidence from the scene of the crime, but did not record it on the list of seized items. They also failed to collect vital evidence, which should have been sent for forensic examination.

 

  1. The police failed to secure the place of occurrence. Subsequently, bloodstains on the floor and walls were simply washed away, thus vital evidence was destroyed.

 

  1. The police refused to record a complaint of murder from the mother. Instead they forced her to sign a complaint indicating that her daughter had committed suicide due to cruelty.

 

  1. There are inconsistencies in the times and dates of various official records, speaking to the fact that they had been badly fabricated.

 

  1. Although the body had not been declared legally dead by a doctor, as required by law, the magistrate held his inquest, and did so without the family members present. The same magistrate was later called upon to conduct a second inquest.

 

  1. While the Investigating Officer added a charge of murder to his final report, the substance of the investigating documents, including the majority of witness statements, suggests an act of suicide. This contradiction may allow the Court to acquit the accused on the benefit of the doubt.

 

  1. The first autopsy surgeon failed to properly examine the body, and may not even have sighted it.

 

A second letter, below, has since been sent to the Chief Minister urging that he take up the case without delay.

 

While Mousumi Ari’s case is remarkable because of the steps taken by the family to obtain justice despite the obstacles placed before them, it is in every other respect typical of the total decay of the criminal justice system in India today. Let us ask some basic questions about the role that each part of the criminal justice machinery plays in such cases.

 

What is the intended role of the police? It is to apply the law and investigate crimes. Throughout India, however, the police are responsible for the most flagrant violations of the law in order to protect the perpetrators of crime.

 

What is the intended role of the autopsy surgeon? It is to establish the cause of death. Throughout India, however, doctors fail to conduct proper autopsies and either deliberately or carelessly submit false reports that again allow the perpetrators of crimes to escape detection.

 

What is the intended role of the magistrate at time of inquest? It is to inquire independently, and through a quasi-judicial process, into the cause of death. Throughout India, however, magistrates collude with the police to produce fabricated reports. In West Bengal in particular, the magistrates responsible for these inquiries are under the same department as the police, and therefore for all practical purposes no procedure for independent inquiry exists.

 

What is the intended role of the bureaucracy, government agencies, and human rights commissions? It is to ensure that the citizens of the country are properly governed, and their rights protected. Throughout India, however, the state agents, including senior police, ministers, chief secretaries and human rights commissioners, fail to take any interest in the misdeeds of their subordinates, and often assist them in covering up crimes. In fact, subordinate officers can expect that their illegal actions will either be ignored, or steps will be taken to protect them.

 

Who is responsible for the increase of crime? Throughout India, it is the agents of the criminal justice system: the police, judicial officials, medical personnel and other state officers who one way or another prevent even the most rudimentary criminal investigations from proceeding as they should. Where criminals control and staff a system, it can only be expected that crime will increase as a result. It then falls to the victims themselves to stand for justice and fight against this rampant criminality through whatever means they have available.

 

Mousumi Ari is now dead, although not yet cremated; her body is still being preserved by her family, who fear that it may yet be needed as evidence. The Chief Minister of West Bengal should now order the immediate suspension of all state officers involved in covering-up the murder, and order a reinvestigation by personnel from outside the state police force. When the Nobel Prize medallion of Rabindranath Tagore was stolen recently, the Chief Minister lost no time in ordering high-level outside investigators on to the case. Presumably the Chief Minister would not like to give the impression that the life of a citizen is worth less than a piece of metal. These simple steps, if taken by the Chief Minister, will do nothing to resolve the massive systemic problems facing the criminal justice system, but they will at least go a small way to restoring some of its credibility in West Bengal. They will certainly give hope to one poor family that their desperate efforts on behalf of their slain relative were not in vain.

 

 
Letter submitted to the President of India on defective post mortem procedures in West Bengal

 

23 March 2004

Dr A P J Abdul Kalam
President of the Republic of India
Office of the President
Rashtrapati Bhawan
New Delhi, 110004
INDIA

Fax: +91 11 3017290, 3014570

Email: presssecy@alpha.nic.in or pressecy@sansad.nic.in

 

 

 

Dear Sir

 

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is concerned about the horrendous practices during forensic examinations at the government hospitals in the state of West Bengal, India.

 

At the Srirampur Government Hospital of Hooghly District, West Bengal, Mr Ratan Dom conducts the autopsies (if one can call it an autopsy). Even though Dr Gaffar is the forensic surgeon responsible for the examination of the bodies, in practice Mr Ratan conducts the autopsy.

 

According to reliable information received, Mr Ratan is a government employee appointed for carrying corpses in the mortuary. He conducts the ‘post mortem examination’ with crude instruments like rusted knifes and hammer.

 

After the ‘post mortem examination’, the bodies are left without even suturing the incisions. The bodies are kept on open floor without any protection and they are left to rot in the open humid environment and it is common that body parts are eaten away by rats and dogs. The relatives of the deceased are to pay ‘extra incentives’ to Dr Gaffar and Mr Ratan if they are to conduct a proper autopsy. Even if the ‘incentives’ are paid, it doesn’t mean that the autopsy will be conducted in a scientific manner with legal procedures respecting etiquette. It only guarantees suturing of the body after the examination. The attached photographs show how the bodies are handled in this particular hospital. Our information is that this is not the only hospital in which dead bodies are handled in such a fashion. It is the general practice in all government hospitals.

 

The very inhuman nature with which the bodies are handled and left to rot is an indicator of human values in the state and how far they are enforced and respected. It is also a pointer to the depth of exploitation, torture, neglect and corruption there, and indicates how little priority is given by the state to the prevention of crime and protection of rights. It is also a clear indicator of the resources earmarked for prevention of crime and administration of justice.

 

Torture is one of the most heinous crimes against humanity. Callousness in handling dead bodies as mentioned above and exploitation of death is also a crime that comes under the ambit of the term ‘torture’ according to the UN Convention against Torture. India has abstained from ratifying the Convention on the pretext that domestic legislation is adequate to prevent torture in the country. However, the above facts paint a different picture.

 

The purpose of forensic examination is not only to find out the cause of death, but also to help do justice to the deceased and her/his family. In cases of suspicious death where the result of an autopsy is vital, one can imagine how far the purpose of justice is served in conditions like those prevailing at Srirampur Government Hospital.

 

Even if forensic examinations are held in a proper manner, the records are handled by police officers on deputation to the courts. The unchallenged access to case records by the police officers on deputation to the courts is yet another serious hindrance to delivery of justice in the state of West Bengal. This must end.

 

AHRC is aware that the Government of India is planning to restructure its criminal legislation in line with the notorious Malimath Committee recommendations. At this juncture it is pertinent to note the response from the Calcutta High Court, signed by Mr Nure Alam Chowdhury, J, Mr Debi Prasad Sengupta, J, and Mr Narayan Chandra, J to the committee’s questionnaire:

 

Question. “7.6. Do you agree with the fact that Prosecution should place greater reliance on forensic evidence?”

 

Answer. “No. Too much of reliance on forensic evidence may lead to disaster. Man falters – sometimes machines falters dangerously, leaving no scope for rectification. But for detection of the criminals and not the crime forensic evidence may be used.”

 

(The reference to the detection of criminals indicates the positive attitude of judges to the polygraph test, which is another suggestive question in the questionnaire. The polygraph test is considered to be one of the most unreliable tests for detection of crime due to its inaccuracy, whereas forensic examination in laboratory conditions is time-tested and accepted in all jurisdictions worldwide.)

 

In the light of the existing facts, one may even wonder what is left to rely upon? It is a pity that the judges seem mainly concerned with taking away the basic ingredients of the rule of law, like the right to silence and presumption of innocence. The judges also recommended that article 20(3) of the Constitution of India be amended, as it was considered as a stumbling block in criminal cases.

 

Where gross violations of basic human values happen in such proportions within the state, and when the courts, government and other arms of the state ignore such violations and further permit it to continue, no justice whatsoever can be achieved.

 

Any attempt to restructure the legislation without addressing the basic facts and correcting inherent errors due to improper implementation of existing laws will only result in catering to the interests of a government fostering the idea of building a police state.

 

AHRC therefore urges the Government of India to take whatever necessary steps to

 

–         Ratify the Convention against Torture and adopt the Convention at the domestic level through implementation of appropriate laws.

 

–         Take immediate action to conduct an impartial inquiry into the incidents mentioned above and put an end to the callousness, exploitation and torture carried out by Dr Gaffar and Mr Ratan.

 

–         Take appropriate steps without delay so that government hospitals in West Bengal are provided with enough resources to procure adequate equipment and personnel for proper discharge of their duties.

 

–         End immediately the deployment of police officers in criminal courts in the state of West Bengal and replace them with civilian officers.

 

Truly yours

(signed)
Basil Fernando
Executive Director 

 

 

Second letter submitted to the Chief Minister of West Bengal on the case of Mousumi Ari

 

19 April 2004

Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee
Chief Minister
Government of West Bengal
Writers Buildings
Kolkata-1, West Bengal
INDIA

Fax: +91-33-2214 5480

Email: cm@wb.gov.in

Your ref: 623 CMS 

 

 
Dear Chief Minister,
Re: Post mortem procedures in West Bengal and the case of Mousumi Ari

I thank you for your Assistant Secretary’s letter dated 6 April 2004 acknowledging receipt of my letter on the horrible conditions of post mortem examinations in West Bengal, dated 23 March 2004.

 

I am sure you will appreciate how concerned the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is about the severity of defective post mortem procedures in West Bengal, as where post mortem procedures fail it can result in the complete denial of justice to victims of murder and their families. When people die as a result of foul play or under suspicious circumstances the best evidence they leave is their corpses, which can tell the tale of how the death occurred. When post mortems go wrong, the evidence of such crimes gets buried along with the bodies.

 

The terrible murder of Mousumi Ari and subsequent events in that case illustrate clearly that people throughout West Bengal are deeply aware that something is wrong with post mortem procedures. AHRC has already written to you regarding the murder of Mousumi Ari (Kakdwip PS Case No. 101, UD Case No. 73/2003, 25,10.2003; referred to you by AHRC on 2 April 2004). In this instance, the doctor conducting the post mortem, one Dr. Gauranga Biswas, colluded with the police officer investigating the case and the executive magistrate to make the murder appear a suicide. In fact, it is entirely possible that the doctor did not even examine the body before signing the autopsy papers. The outraged family members, led by Mousumi’s mother and aunt, took the body back to their fishing village but rather than cremating it took the unprecedented step of covering it with plastic and burying it an eight-foot-deep pit that was then filled with salt. When they finally managed to secure a proper post mortem, undertaken by proper forensic doctors, it confirmed that the girl had been murdered. In fact, the second report showed that the first one was completely bogus.

 

At present, AHRC is awaiting news to the effect that legal action is being taken against the errant police, medical and judicial officers in this case, and trusts that you are looking into the case accordingly. Steps taken by you to remedy the gross injustices caused to families such as that of Mousumi Ari will go a long way to restoring public confidence in West Bengal’s judicial and medical institutions, particularly when coupled with serious reforms to forensic examinations in West Bengal. While Mousumi Ari’s family took extreme measures in their efforts to obtain justice, most others are unlikely to resort to such an approach, and rely more heavily upon the effective functioning of government and judicial institutions in the first instance, if justice is to be done.

 

Under these circumstances I urge you to once again take some strong measures to alter the situation regarding post mortem inquiries in West Bengal, and in particular, to personally undertake to ensure that the family of Mousumi Ari obtain justice and adequate redress. As this is a matter of great importance it would be useful if you were to announce to the public the measures that you have adopted in taking up the matter with the authorities concerned, as indicated in the letter from your Assistant Secretary.

 

Yours sincerely

 
(signed)
Basil Fernando
Executive Director

 


This article is the compilation of a number of appeals that the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has made on the case of Mousumi Ari and defective post mortem procedures in West Bengal. See further: INDIA: AHRC letter to the President of India regarding the horrendous practices during forensic examinations in West Bengal, (AG-01-2004, 23 March 2004); INDIA: Police, magistrate and doctor cover-up murder of 17-year-old girl (UA-33-2004, 2 April 2004), and a statement issued on the same day; INDIA: Post mortem procedures in West Bengal and the case of Mousumi Ari (UP-18-2004). All documents are available on the AHRC website (www.ahrchk.net). At the time of publication, AHRC had received a letter of general acknowledgement from the office of the Chief Minister of West Bengal, however, nothing specific with regards to action taken in this case.

This is also the first in the new ‘Urgent Appeals File’ series, which will discuss in detail recent Urgent Appeal cases taken up by the Asian Human Rights Commission.

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