Why AHTUs role in investigating human trafficking cases is critical to reach their logical ends
By Nisha Mehroon and Ayush Agrawal
It is the crime that needs to be questioned, rather than questioning the victim. Solving human trafficking cases involves much more than just finding the accused!
A study on human trafficking cases of the past has shown some unnerving experiences of the victims, raising a question against the conduct of the investigation by officers in charge. Most of the cases acquitted in the court of law weren’t due to the false complaints of the victim, but mostly due to the lack of benchmarking pieces of evidence to prove the trafficker guilty. Nothing could be done after the case is closed and the victim is left with nothing but hopelessness.
However, if the process of handling human trafficking cases is taken into account and dealt with, it can surface the shortcomings of the investigators and the investigation procedure, which might help to serve justice to the victims. Furthermore, it can encourage the formation of a much effective task force to handle human trafficking cases and carry out expeditious investigations.
A case of human trafficking is first reported to the local police of the area as a complaint. The decision to take on the investigation of the case or transfer the case to an Anti Human Trafficking Unit lies with the Officer in Charge of the police station. Anti Human Trafficking Units, commonly referred to as AHTUs, are specialised investigation units with the law enforcement that were created upon the directive of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, in 2008, by state governments in their respective states.
In cases where the investigating officer is from a local police station, the investigation is mostly restricted to the jurisdiction of the police station, wherein the officer tries to gather evidence and witness to the crime available in the jurisdiction. This may suffice well for most crimes that are local - even if grievous. However, when a crime involves multiple sites and networks spreading across states, it requires powers, resources and privileges that may not lie with a local police station - such as funds, time and manpower, and usually, such cases, if significant and grievous, are taken up by specialised agencies such as the CID. Cases of human trafficking, which are more often than not, an organised crime spread across multiple sites in different states, when investigated by officers from local police stations, resulting in inadequate investigations.
Research on the differences in quality of investigations conducted by offices from local police stations and AHTUs reveal interesting findings. Cases handled by the officers from a local police station did not conduct investigations in other sites of crime - linking traffickers and their crimes of buying, selling, harbouring or various other kinds of exploitation. As a result, the prosecution’s evidence was weak, and was challenged by the defence lawyers leading to failure of establishment of crime and culpability of the accused, leading to acquittal.
As it was seen in the case of Asma Molla (registered in 2011), who got trafficked from West Bengal to Pune by her husband and brother in law. It happened when Asma left her husband and came back to her parents, due to domestic violence from her husband. Asma was rescued in Pune, post which, she filed an FIR in Pune against the brothel manager and madam. Her case was handled by the local police, and the local investigation couldn’t provide justice to her case. The case was dismissed in Pune due to a lack of evidence.
In contrast, when cases were investigated by officers in AHTUs, investigations were conducted in multiple sites of crime across states, linking the chain of events and crimes and traffickers at different points, leading to a robust investigation.
A victim of human trafficking named Tithi Das has benefitted from such a task force. She got trafficked in 2017 from West Bengal to Gujarat. Being a resident of West Bengal, Tithis’ father lodged a complaint to a local police station, seeing the severity of which, got transferred to AHTU.
Not only did the AHTU comforted Tithi, but they also took her to the place where she was exploited to collect important circumstantial evidence that would strengthen the case. Despite being in the trauma, Tithi helped the officials by sharing locations of local traffickers over WhatsApp and gathering evidence from the destination. This re-established the confidence in Tithi, and the pieces of evidence that were collected resisted the bails of the accused.
The reason that the officers from local police stations did not conduct the crime was not necessarily lesser skills. These officers had to cope with pressures of the emergent in their jurisdiction, ranging from managing law and order situations, protection of officially protected ‘VIPs’ (usually politicians and celebrities), and other crimes from theft, robbery, rapes, murders, domestic violence, assault and so on. In the list of priorities, the crimes which they feel more confident being able to solve gain priority than cases of human trafficking, which they feel that they have low chances of success in investigation and prosecution.
In contrast, an officer from the AHTU, seems to have the time, resources and the institutional support to concentrate on the investigation that requires trust-building with the victim, coordination with the survivor and multiple agencies in other states, investigation travel and discovery of a trail of trafficking across states, and gathering evidence and witnesses to establish the facts, of a chain of events and crimes, linking traffickers in the source and destination points.
Because the officers from the local police stations have low confidence in being able to investigate the crime, they dissuade victims to lodge complaints, discourage them to reveal the crime in their statements to the magistrates and manipulate them not to consent to medical examinations to protect themselves from stigma and shame of being prostituted. In contrast, AHTU officers encourage and support survivors to reveal the facts of the case and support them through the various stages of investigation, even seeking their help and cooperation in investigation. This validation, support and respect go a long way in motivating survivors to cooperate with the prosecution of the state, as is clear in Tithi’s case.
With the approach seen in handling human trafficking cases by AHTU’s, longing to address the three key aspects of trafficking, i.e., prevention, protection and prosecution, it surely will raise the bar of convictions in front of the court, with residing power of efficient investigations and evidence. It will also compel the judiciary to amend the laws concerning the act of human trafficking, giving traffickers the punishment, they deserve.
At the same time, practices of victim blaming will also see a downfall, given the strict law and order made in favour for the victims of human trafficking. This might as well prove to be a game-changer in resisting the will and reducing the capability of traffickers to be able to withhold the network of human trafficking in future.
About the authors: Nisha is a researcher and a specialist in how marginalised populations access entitlements and justice from the criminal justice system in India currently associated with Sanjog; Ayush is an engineer, content writer on social issues currently associated with Sanjog as a consultant.