| Pamposh Raina |
NEW DELHI, India (AFP) – When Santosh Kumar and his friends spotted the blood-soaked body of a neighbour on their way home from a game of cricket in New Delhi, they felt duty-bound to report his murder.
But without access to a lawyer and having failed to provide police with an alibi or proof of age, the 17-year-old found himself behind bars along with some of India’s most hardened adult criminals in Delhi’s Tihar Jail.
“Tihar is a place where anyone would be scared. I felt like a caged bird,” shuddered Kumar, as he recalled his nightmare of two-months locked up in South Asia’s largest penitentiary.
“Police often dealt with miscreants by hitting their bare heels with plastic rods. Anyone who dared to oppose them would be subject to physical abuse.”
“I cried almost every day,” he added, while also recalling the fights between inmates crammed in cells, yards from the prison execution ground.
While anyone under the age of 18 should in theory never be detained in a prison such as Tihar, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) identified 2,900 inmates just in New Delhi’s two prisons who they believe are juveniles.
Police and the magistrate hearing a case are responsible for verifying a suspect’s age. But Kumar’s case illustrates how vulnerable, young suspects can easily fall victim to a flawed system.
“The magistrate didn’t ask me anything, so I didn’t get a chance to explain myself,” said Kumar, who did not have a lawyer for the initial court hearings.
“No policeman in jail bothered to check my age,” he added.
Even the prison authorities acknowledge that suspects can be in a state of shock and in no position to explain themselves.
“When someone is arrested they are in a horrified state. The police should do extra work in terms of verifying their age,” said Sunil Gupta, a spokesman for Tihar.
The question of whether an offender is over the age of 18 can be a matter of life and death in India as was seen during the trials of five male defendants who were convicted of the fatal gang-rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi in December 2012.
While four of them are now on death row for a crime that triggered mass protests, the fifth attacker only has to serve three years in a correctional facility as he was only 17 at the time of the crime.
The teenager was only able to prove his age after his school records were produced in court, prompting prosecutors to drop their demands for ossification tests that could have taken weeks to be verified.
NCPCR spokeswoman Kushal Singh said that age verification can be a protracted process, blaming a shortage of doctors who can conduct the tests and the requirement for a medical board to oversee the process.
“The unfortunate part is that the majority of them (juvenile suspects) have no proof of identity, so to establish their age is becoming a bit of a problem,” Singh said.In some cases, prosecutors have been reluctant to even accept birth certificates as definitive proof of age as many parents fail to register their children until some months after they are born.
Kumar did manage to secure bail some months after his arrest after he was finally able to prove his innocence, but his ordeal has left deep scars.
“I did nothing wrong,” said Kumar, who has only been able to find work running a tea kiosk in the two years since his incarceration. “But, I still feel that I have developed hatred for any criminal activity,” he added.
Child rights experts have long argued that minors who spend time in adult prisons before being transferred to a juvenile detention facility end up replicating the violent behaviour they are exposed to behind bars. India’s new government last month proposed amendments to the existing juvenile justice system, which if approved by parliament could mean defendants who are 16 years old are treated as adults when on trial for crimes such as acid attacks, rape or murder.
But for hundreds of juveniles, the adult justice system is already a reality until they manage to access the paperwork or get the test results that prove they should not face the full force of the law.