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Sunday, 25 March 2012

To handcuff or not to handcuff

(This article first appeared in Kuensel in 2007 when chimis submitted in the National Assembly that the use of handcuff should be banned in Bhutan)

The debate is whether it is correct to use handcuffs, or, for that matter, fetter someone in irons. The concern chimis submitted to the 86th National Assembly was relevant, but half‐baked. They wanted the use of handcuffs to stop altogether. They presumably looked at handcuffing only from the humanitarian point of view, which is all but complete.

Yes, handcuffing is inhuman and degrading. But when there are justifiable grounds for use of handcuffs, it makes sense. The argument should, therefore, fall somewhere between when it should be used and how.

To fetter arrestees and detainees in irons is no exception to the Bhutanese security system. Security personnel around the world use handcuffs and manacles for various reasons. Primarily, handcuffs are used for security reasons. Desperate arrestees or detainees can be up to anything. They can pose a physical risk to security officials and people around. They can attempt escape, they can attempt suicide, or, they can even display unhealthy scenes in public. It is in the interest of both security officials and public that handcuffs are used. In some countries, hardened criminals are handcuffed even in court. There are stories of security officials being physically attacked by arrestees and detainees to make their escape. How many of us have not heard of security officials jailed for dereliction of duty just because a detainee under their watch has escaped? Therefore, handcuffs.

But, there is a darker side to the use of handcuffs. Handcuffs are also used to intimidate, humiliate, taunt, and dehumanise. Human rights groups around the world have criticised handcuffing individuals to intimidate and humiliate as degrading and violating fundamental rights. They view it as an instrument of torture before suspects are proven guilty. Every human being has the right to be free from torture, cruel or inhuman and degrading treatment. S(he) also has the right to be properly detained. S(he) has the right to presumption of innocence before proven guilty. S(he) has the right to fundamental human dignity. These rights form part of many international conventions on human rights. Therefore, when viewed as an instrument of intimidation, humiliation, or torture, handcuffing can be seen as an uncivilised practice.

While security personnel want handcuffing made mandatory, human rights activists see it as a rule that violates many international conventions. If handcuffing is construed as a rule, even harmless women and children can find themselves in shackles.

Here is a fine line to tread. Handcuffs cannot be stopped altogether. Neither can it be a mandatory rule. The use of handcuffs should be based on the degree of crime, circumstance, and physical and mental condition of the arrestee or detainee. The debate in the National Assembly should not stop with one side giving in to the other. It should ideally give birth to strict procedural guidelines specifying when and how the use of handcuffs is appropriate.

In January 6, 2007, in Kuensel story Handcuffing: for safety, a spokesperson for the Royal Bhutan Police is quoted as saying, “The National Assembly as the lawmaker is contradicting itself”. I think that the concern raised by chimis should not be viewed narrowly. Our chimis were trying to touch on some of the finer issues regarding handcuffing. And the concern is very relevant.

The RBP spokesperson is also quoted as saying, “If they [people] fear humiliation, they should abide by the law”, which implies that, if anybody does not abide by the law, s(he) is bound to be humiliated. Here, we are not basically talking about abiding by the law of the land. All citizens of the country know that they should abide by the law of the land. But they are all human beings, after all, and human beings are bound to err. So the starting point of the debate is, how are we treating our erring fellow human beings? Let us not lose sight of the essence of the debate even as we share our views.

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