Dire need for a forensic laboratory

The Royal Bhutan Police is in the process of acquiring land to establish the lab

Crime: Six years after her brother was acquitted of an alleged murder, Tshering Dema vividly recalls the ordeal her family was put through as they waited for the DNA test results.

Tshering’s brother was accused of murdering his friend whose body was found at the sewerage pond in Babesa, Thimphu hours after they met with an accident along the expressway below the helipad.

That was in mid 2008. Her brother’s DNA was sent to Kolkatta for forensic investigation. He was a Class XII student then at a private school in Thimphu. He was detained soon after the incident and spent a year and nine days in prison until the DNA results proved him innocent.

“During the final examinations, he was handcuffed and taken to school,” she said. “I stood by him as I know he would never murder someone.”

In the same year, a relative of a six-year-old girl, who was raped, desperately waited for the forensic report that would either convict or set the prime suspect free.

The suspect had also spent over a year in prison waiting for the forensic report. More than a year later, the 29-year-old suspect was acquitted.

In absence of forensic testing capacity in the country, samples for forensic tests have to be sent abroad, which often delays the process of justice.

Prosecutors and the Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) agree that the need for an in country forensic laboratory has become crucial to prove cases beyond reasonable doubt or those based on circumstantial evidences.

To establish the long overdue forensic laboratory, the RBP is in the process of identifying an appropriate location. A budget of Nu 135M has been proposed for the laboratory. Discussions are also on with forensic experts abroad to develop a feasible and flexible plan for development of the facility in Bhutan.

RBP’s forensic biologist Major Lobzang Phuntsho said the demand for forensic investigation of cases has been on the rise.

Based on the need assessment which concerns all stakeholders like health, law enforcement agencies, Office of the Attorney General, Anti-Corruption Commission and financial institutions, among others, it was decided that the forensic laboratory will begin with forensic DNA analysis, fingerprint identification and question document examination.

Although all crime investigations require forensic evidences, Major Lobzang Phuntsho said forensic tests are sought mostly for sensitive and heinous crimes. “Forensic tests are an important component to substantiate facts to prove beyond reasonable doubt and corroborate with evidence,” he said. “Forensic investigation plays a crucial role in upholding criminal justice system.”

When evidences are sent abroad, he said it often leads to delay with forensic laboratories in India having their own pending cases. “The delay leads to delay in justice as cases are prosecuted without the forensic report based on circumstantial evidences,” he said.

Attorney General Shera Lhendup said that a forensic laboratory in the country was long overdue. “If not late, it is not early either,” he said, stressing further that it is required to deliver speedy and cost effective justice.

Similarly, forensic expert Dr Pakila Dukpa said that forensic evidences are vital for strengthening criminal justice system and dispensation of justice. “The judiciary has overhauled the justice system with the establishment of courts across the country so forensic evidences have become vital,” he said.

Dr Pakila Dupka also said that there is a high demand for scientifically processed evidences with increasing awareness among the people about their rights. “Especially in heinous crime such as murder, evidences have to be strong and proven beyond reasonable doubt,” he said.

At present, the proposal to develop a forensic laboratory lies with the RBP. However, the RBP Act states that the forensic laboratory has to be an independent and autonomous institution to avoid conflict of interest. RBP officials said an agency has to take the lead, as the forensic unit is a domain utilised by various stakeholders.

Dr Pakila Dukpa and the Attorney General also said that the forensic laboratory should be an independent agency and not managed by the investigation agency to avoid conflict of interest.

While the wait for an in country forensic laboratory has been long, RBP has managed to strengthen its capacity in forensic investigation and trained some five officers so far. Today, every police station in the country is equipped with forensic investigation kit and trained staff.

The Thimphu referral hospital has sent more than 100 disputed paternity cases abroad for DNA tests in the past few years.

Since 2008, the RBP has sent over 208 DNA samples in connection with 52 criminal cases, 20 samples for forensic soil analysis related to five Ku-Sung-Thukten cases and 12 samples for toxicological analysis to Kolkata, India. About 10 cases of document examination were also sent to Kolkata besides a few ballistic cases. Of these cases, 19 are still pending.

“In a week, we receive at least one case that requires forensic investigation that are sent abroad,” Major Lobzang Phuntsho said.

By Kinga Dema

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