NEW DELHI, India — As India takes the helm of the United Nations Security Council’s counterterrorism committee this year, its leaders would do well to think of Shahid, a young man who told me in harrowing detail of being tortured as a terrorism suspect by Indian state police.
Responding to synchronized bombings that killed more than 152 people in the cities of Delhi, Jaipur and Ahmedabad in 2008, the police rounded up scores of Muslim men whom they accused of membership in the Indian Mujahideen, a militant group that claimed responsibility for the blasts. Several suspects alleged that they were mistreated in police custody — some said they were blindfolded and shackled, others said they were beaten, threatened or forced to sign false confessions.
“We were made to wear dark masks,” Shahid told me when I met him in India in 2009. “Whenever they interrogated me and they felt that the answer was improper, they beat me with the wooden stick or the leather belt or whatever they liked. ... I was told by the police department, ‘If you do not cooperate, we will take custody of all of your family.’ ”
Shahid shook as he described his treatment. His real name and details of his detention are being withheld because he fears reprisal. Though he was ultimately released without charge, he doesn’t dare complain to authorities. “I was so scared I did not know what would happen and what to do or not to do,” he said. “I thought I would never come out.”
India has the potential to play an influential role on counterterrorism at the Security Council, where it began a two-year, rotating membership in January. As the world’s largest democracy, an economic powerhouse and a pivotal regional player, it has the clout to be heard.
India is also a palpable example of the horrors of terrorism. While Taliban bombs ravage Pakistan seemingly every week, India has also lost hundreds of people in recent years to militant attacks, including the horrific 2008 siege of Mumbai by Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The question is whether India will uphold its values as a constitutional democracy and take the lead in pressing for critically needed reforms during its one-year chair of the counterterrorism committee, or if it will see its position as an opportunity to press for more draconian international measures.
The committee oversees two Security Council resolutions passed in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. These resolutions direct all countries to make every effort to prevent and combat terrorism, including by freezing funds to people alleged to be involved in terrorism, and by passing laws that prohibit incitement to commit terrorist acts. Dozens of U.N. member states, including India, have used these resolutions to justify counterterrorism laws that facilitate torture and other abuses of suspects. Some states also have frozen suspects’ funds for years on end without giving them a fair hearing, or have used the resolutions as political cover to quash peaceful political dissent under the guise of targeting violent extremism.
If it takes the high road, India could help ensure that these counterterrorism mandates do not result in violations of basic human rights, including the internationally protected rights to be free from extrajudicial execution, torture and arbitrary detention.
India could press the Security Council to recognize that countering terrorism and protecting human rights are complementary goals, and that human rights violations can backfire by alienating local populations and inadvertently bolstering the lure of militant groups.
But to help reform the U.N. system, India needs to lead by example. India should start by repealing those provisions of its own counterterrorism laws that contain vague and sweeping definitions of terrorism, allow 180 days of detention without charge — well beyond internationally accepted limits — and empower special courts to hold closed court hearings and call secret witnesses with scant justification.
India should also enact its potentially landmark Prevention of Torture Bill, but only after closing any loopholes so that it conforms with the international Convention Against Torture, which India signed in 1997. It should professionalize its police force so that overworked and undertrained officers have more tools than a baton to solve a crime. And it should hold to account those police and other law enforcement officials, regardless of rank, who have committed or were complicit in detainee abuse.
Some progress has already been made. Investigations into three attacks attributed to the Indian Mujahideen in 2010 did not draw the widespread allegations of mistreatment that Human Rights Watch heard in connection with the 2008 attacks. And in recent months, Indian investigators allowed evidence, rather than hunches, to guide them in the case of four deadly bombings that terrorized the country in 2006-07, making the politically unpopular revelation that the lead suspects were Hindu extremists, not Islamist militants as they had previously claimed.
Transforming such individual acts of respect for the law into institutional changes is no easy task. But by doing so, India can set an example for the world — and start restoring faith at home among Muslims and other minorities or marginalized groups who feel unfairly targeted. “We want justice,” Shahid told me. “Nothing else.”
Letta Tayler is a terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. She is co-author of the new Human Rights Watch report “The ‘Anti-Nationals’: “Arbitrary Detention and Torture of Terrorism Suspects in India.”