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Baffled in Punjab
Poison deaths in jails
Ajay Banerjee
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, August 1
A series of mysterious deaths has been occurring in jails in Punjab due to insecticide poisoning. Inmates in the jails --- undertrials or others --- have been dying with the Patiala-based chemical examiner detecting the presence of poison. The question being asked by a section of the authorities is whether these could be planned murders.

Officials confirm that deaths due to poisoning have been occurring with regularity, but admit that there is no plausible explanation as to how the insecticides reached the jail premises as each person is frisked. Or how the prison inmate concerned consumed the insecticide, which has a pungent smell. There has been no probe to find out whether there was foul play involved.

Investigations by The Tribune in the past 10 days have revealed startling facts. Deaths due to insecticide poisoning have been occurring more frequently in jails since the year 2000. More than 40 deaths have occurred. The problem has peaked in the past two years or so as more than 22 cases of poison-related custodial deaths are pending hearing with the Punjab state human rights commission. The top brass of the Punjab police, the jail authorities and even the Punjab home department are all aware of the problem.

The commission has even awarded interim compensation to the families of the victims. In cases like that of Sukhdev Singh, who died on November 2, 2004, the commission blamed the death on “negligence/connivance of jail authorities”. The website of the commission lists about two dozen cases of “chloro compound” poisoning. In each case the chemical examiner found poison in the viscera and the blame has been put squarely on the jail authorities.

Seeing a spurt in such deaths in the past two years, the jail authorities, a clutch of senior Punjab police officials and human rights commission officials held a high-level meeting last week to get to the bottom of the mystery. Sources said several questions were raised as to why the police was not following up each case to rule out foul play in the death.

The tendency is to blame the death on drug addiction. Did someone provide milk or lassi containing the poison to the deceased during meeting hours to settle scores without waiting for the outcome of the court case? Or did the deceased own some property and who would be the beneficiaries in the case of his death ? These are some of the baffling questions the authorities face. The Punjab government has, so far, never conducted an inquiry and no responsibility has been fixed for these deaths, well-placed sources confirmed to The Tribune.

Two days ago, on Monday, the prison department finally asked the commission and also the home department to order a full-scale inquiry, headed by a senior police official assisted by medical, forensic and viscera experts, into each case. Only a detailed inquiry could unravel the mystery of the poison-related deaths in the jails of Punjab, said the request.

Actually, it all started with a report of Dr Upneet Lalli, deputy director in the Institute of Correctional Administration in Chandigarh. She did a study of “custodial deaths and human rights in Punjab”. The report ordered by the commission is kept under wraps, but reveals how deaths have been occurring.

Meanwhile, the national human rights commission has found that Punjab ranks among the top six states having the highest number of custodial deaths in the country. This alongside states like UP and Bihar, perpetually in the “bad” category.

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