FIXING ACCOUNTABILITY OF JUDICIAL MAGISTRATE (IN THE CONTEXT OF TAMIL NADU FATHER-SON CUSTODIAL DEATH)

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This article is written by Muskaan Bangani from Mody University of Science and Technology, Lakshmangarh, Rajasthan, and curated by Anjeeta Rani of Chanakya National Law University, Patna.

According to Oxford dictionary, the term torture means “The action or practice of inflicting severe pain or suffering on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something”, but what happened to Tamil Nadu’s P. Jeyraja and his son J. Fenix was nothing short of barbaric. Jeyraja was a 60-year-old man who lived in Sathankulam, a town near Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu. He owned a mobile shop at Sathankulam. On 18th June 2020, a police patrol team while passing by Jeyraja’s shop at around 7.30 pm asked him to shut down, despite the deadline being 9:00 pm. Jeyraja made few critical remarks against the police patrol team for insisting shop owners shut their shops early. An auto driver informed the police about the said remark, and as a result, the police took Jeyraja into custody the very next day. His son, J Fenix, and his friends left for the police station after they informed him about his father being taken to the police station. On arrival, Fenix was asked to wait for several hours after which he saw that his father was being physically harassed by a police officer. An agitated Fenix questioned the officer and tried to stop the torture which led to him pushing the police officer to protect his aged father. Subsequently, the officers arrested him too. His friends were not allowed to meet both of them. There were 2 sub-inspectors and 2 constables in the torture team, and in total, 13 police officers were present during the entire incident. The friends of Fenix stated that they were tortured so brutally, that their screams were heard even 500 meters away from the station and they were tortured for more than three hours. Pery, Fenix’s sister, registered her statement saying that the police had stripped them naked and kept trashing them with batons, with such force that it ripped off the flesh from their genitals, back, and thighs and broke their bones. On 20th June 2020, the family members waited outside the police station till midnight, and after a while, they saw the two in very bad shape; they were bleeding incessantly. The police officers asked the family members to bring “dark coloured veshti and lungi” for the captives. Then they were taken to the Sathankulam government hospital. During 3 hours, their lungis were changed 4-5 times. After 3 hours at the hospital, both the son and the father were taken to Sathankulam Magistrate Court.

The incident that happened at the court stunned everyone. The brother in law of Jeyraja stated that the Magistrate waved his hand from the first floor of the building as the police stood outside without even hearing the case. Then, both were sent to Kovilpatti sub-jail till the evening of 22nd June 2020, before they were shifted to a nearby hospital. Due to excessive bleeding and severe external and internal injuries from the alleged lock up torture, Fenix died late in the evening on 22nd June and Jeyraja died in the wee hours on 23rd June.

After the news of the death of the father and son broke out in social media on 23rd June 2020, it led to a mass protest against the police officers and the Magistrate.

A magistrate is the first point of contact for any litigant seeking justice at the district level, and like any other government servant, his primary duty is to serve the public and their interests. The responsibility of building up the case appropriately and understanding the matter lies on him so that the cause of justice is answered. The personalities, knowledge, judicial restraint, capacity to maintain dignity are the additional aspects that go into making the Court’s functioning successful.

Article 22(2) of the Indian Constitution provides that each person who is arrested and detained in custody shall be produced before the nearest magistrate within 24 hours of such arrest and no one shall be detained in custody beyond the said period without the authority of a magistrate. The magistrate can pass an order of remand to authorize the detention of the accused in such custody as such Magistrate thinks fit, for a term not exceeding 15 days in the whole.

In Sheela Barse vs State of Maharashtra (1983), the Hon’ble Supreme Court ruled that the arrested accused person must be informed by the magistrate about his right to be medically examined in terms of section 54 of Code of Criminal Procedure. The High court directed magistrates to ask the arrested person if he has any complaint of torture or maltreatment in police custody. It is the onus of the state to provide free legal aid to an indigent accused person.

The judicial magistrates must not be spectators or mere recording machines, instead, they should be an active participant in the trial using his/her intellect to ascertain the truth. They must inform the accused of his fundamental right to seek legal counsel and also to inform the friends/family of the accused about the arrest.

One of the cardinal principles of criminal law is that every accused is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. Hence, no one should be punished without a fair trial.

The facts of the above case shed light on the fact that P. Jeyaraja and J. Fenix may have been alive today and recuperating in a hospital, had it not been for the sheer negligence and dereliction of duty by the Magistrate. Had he heard the merits of the case and acted with caution and discretion, the two would have been referred to a hospital for immediate treatment and not confined to die in prison, as they were.

 

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