Police use of ‘truth serum’ sparks concern in India

The Guardian, NEW DELHI

Sat, Jul 07, 2012 - Page 6

It is the sort of scene that belongs in a film noir: An uncooperative suspect being injected with a dose of “truth serum” in an attempt to elicit a confession. However, some detectives in India still swear by so-called narcoanalysis despite India’s highest court ruling that it was not only unreliable, but also “cruel, inhuman and degrading.”

The technique is back in the news after officers from India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) asked a judge for permission to administer sodium pentothal to a high-profile Indian politician and his financial adviser embroiled in a corruption case. The drug is a barbiturate that acts on the central nervous system, dissolving anxiety, inducing drowsiness and even unconsciousness.

CBI investigators made the application to try to prove embezzlement allegations against Jagan Mohan Reddy, the charismatic son of former Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, who died in a mysterious helicopter crash in 2009. They say that the technique is warranted because neither Reddy nor his auditor are cooperating with the inquiry.

Jagan Mohan Reddy has protested vehemently against the use of narcoanalysis on the grounds that a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 held that such tests are illegal without consent from the individuals.

However, Gandhi P.C. Kaza, chairman of the Truth Lab, India’s first independent forensic service, said that despite narcoanalysis being “unscientific, undemocratic, illegal and inhumane,” it was still used with enthusiasm in certain Indian states — notably Gujarat and Karnataka. He condemned the practice, saying it had “no place in the world’s greatest democracy.”

There are no official figures for the number of suspects who have been subjected to narcoanalysis, but V.H. Patel, deputy director at the Directorate of Forensic Sciences, Gandhinagar, in Gujarat, said he had personally conducted narcoanalysis in nearly 100 cases. He said that the procedure was safe and ethical.

“There is no violence involved. It’s a good methodology that helps the investigation,” he said. “After all, there has to be justice for the victims.”

Patel said he worked with a team of three other scientists to administer the tests, as well as a psychiatrist and an anaesthetist.

“It takes almost a week to test a single person. We conduct various medical tests and interviews with them,” he said. “It’s an important methodology, but we cannot say how accurate it is in the end.”

Many experts believe narcoanalysis can be classed as torture under the UN Convention against Torture.