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Rights activists hail Indian truth drug ban

End of 'voodoo science' as Supreme Court orders halt to use of lie-detector tests, brain-mapping and truth serums on criminal suspects.

KOLKATA // A Supreme Court ruling to ban the use of lie detector tests, brain-mapping and truth serums on criminal suspects has been hailed by rights activists, but police and intelligence officials said the decision will hamper investigations.

Courts throughout India are now expected to begin dismissing evidence based on truth serums. The ruling this month was in response to petitions filed by suspects between 2005 and 2007 against the use of the controversial tests as part of investigations. "Narco, brain-mapping and polygraph tests are illegal and a violation of personal liberty. No individual can be forced and subjected to such techniques involuntarily," a three-judge bench, headed by Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan, said in its decision on May 5.

Information collected through a lie detector, brain-mapping or truth drugs is not admissible as evidence in Indian courts. Yet in the past decade, Indian investigators have increasingly used these "narco tests" as tools of investigation on suspects in cases ranging from terrorism and murder to financial crimes. Colin Gonsalves, the director of the Human Rights Law Network, said his organisation welcomed what he called a "landmark judgement" because the tests violate the country's constitution, which prohibits anyone accused of an offence from being "compelled to be witness against himself".

Mr Gonsalves said drug tests are a "travesty of justice" and "a voodoo science - a kind of torture that is grossly misused by the police". Lie detector tests and the brain electrical activation profile (BEAP), or brain mapping, are considered non-invasive. During brain-mapping, the subject's brain activity is electronically monitored under questioning to decide whether he or she is telling the truth. Lie detectors tests, or polygraphs, work similarly except they monitor one's pulse, breathing, perspiration and blood pressure.

In what is referred to as narco-analysis, a suspect or witness is injected with the "truth drug" sodium pentothal, an anaesthetic, to induce a trance-like state during which the person is interrogated. It is believed that the drug inhibits one's ability to lie and helps investigators extract the truth. "The police, instead of collecting real evidence, often relied on these tests to spread rumours about the suspects," Mr Gonsalves said.

The director of India's Central Bureau of Investigation, Ashwani Kumar, said this week that narco-analysis and similar tests were useful tools that helped solve several high-profile crimes in recent years. "The Supreme Court ban on narco and the related tests is definitely a setback for several terrorism-related and other criminal investigations in the country now." Days before the ban came into effect, the Rajasthan Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) successfully applied to the Ajmer district court in Rajasthan to use narco tests on Devender Gupta, who had been arrested in 2007 along with suspected Hindu extremists after the bombing of a Muslim shrine in Ajmer that year, to develop clues related to other bomb attacks.

As soon as the ban on forced narco tests came through, however, Mr Gupta petitioned the Ajmer court to prevent the tests. The court overturned its previous decision, in a blow to the investigators. Goolam E Vahanvati, India's solicitor general in 2008, argued before the Supreme Court that investigative agencies had a legal mandate to conduct the narco tests and that the results of the tests are used only as a stepping stone for furthering investigations to crack crime syndicates and terrorism networks.

The Supreme Court rejected that argument this month. Such exigencies "justified intrusions into [individuals'] civil liberties", it said. "Invocations of a compelling public interest cannot justify the dilution of constitutional rights such as the right against self-incrimination," the court said. "As the guardians of these rights, we will be failing in our duty if we permit any citizen to be forcibly subjected to the tests in question."

The evidence itself is out among experts as to whether sodium pentothal is dependable or so much science fiction. Truth serums, originally used by psychiatrists to judge the sanity of their patients, were first used in a criminal investigation in India in 2002, it was reported, on Muslim suspects who were accused of burning to death 58 Hindu activists in a train coach in Gujarat's Godhra. Their trial continues.

In 2003, Abdul Karim Telgi, accused in a fake stamp paper scam that was said to be worth more than 3,000 crore rupees (Dh2.2 billion) was subjected to narco tests by the CBI. Under the influence of sodium pentothal, Telgi was said to have revealed names of his associates, including some high-profile politicians. The politicians were not charged; in 2007, Telgi was sentenced to 13 years in jail. Kiran Bedi, a former senior police officer - a winner of the Ramon Magsaysay award for her humanitarian approach to prison reform, she retired in 2007 - said narco tests were useful to extract truth from hardened criminals.

"Narco-analysis test, if conducted by efficient experts, can provide almost 100 per cent correct results and is a most effective tool today for investigating agencies," she said. The former director of the State Forensic Science Laboratory in Mumbai, Mr R Krishnamurthy, who helped conduct narco tests on many criminal suspects, said that in cases where there are no witnesses, the tests often provided important corroborative evidence.

"I know of a good number of cases where narco tests took pivotal role in helping courts decide cases," Mr Krishnamurthy said. Civil rights advocates maintain that the ban was just and long overdue. "It's a welcome judgement, though quite a delayed one," said Prashant Bhusan, a Delhi-based civil rights activist. Narco analysis, he said, "causes severe trauma to the victims and is unreliable". "The constitution prohibits compelling a person from answering a question. Here you are completely drugging and compelling him for his answer. It violates a person's right to silence and privacy as the test basically opens up his brain."