From the 7th April, the media started to carry reports that 20 men from Tamil Nadu had been killed earlier that day in an encounter in the Seshachalam forest in Andhra Pradesh, where, according to the State police, they were cutting down red sander trees and had attacked policemen and foresters of the anti-smuggling task force. The following statement attributed to Dr. M. Kantha Rao, DIG of the AP Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling STF carried in the newspapers, set out what had happened:
“As soon as they saw police, at least 150 to 200 labourers, hired by the smugglers, rained stones, shot arrows and threw sticks and iron rods. They hid behind boulders and attacked. At least eight forest officers were injured and the task force opened fire in self-defense. At least 20 were killed. They are hired daily wagers from Tamil Nadu. We believe they had been camping here since Monday evening. The exchange started at 5 am and continued for about an hour.” A team of human rights activists from People’s Watch (comprising of Ms. Palaniammal, Adv, Aseervatham and Mr. Senthil Raja accompanied by members of the Citizens for Human Rights Movement (CHRM) from Vellore, Thiruvannamalai, Dharmapuri and Namakkal Districts) immediately set out on 7th April itself, to conduct a preliminary fact finding into the incident. The Governments and concerned officials of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu were duly intimated about the same. During the fact finding mission, the People’s Watch team visited the scene of the alleged encounter, the concerned police stations, hospitals and post-mortem centres as well as the villages that the deceased victims belonged to and met with the family members of the victims. The findings of the fact finding team completely challenges the State’s claim of the alleged cutting down of red sanders tree and attack on policemen and foresters of the anti-smuggling task force.
Many facts that have since emerged, seriously contest the ‘encounter’ version of the AP police – only 9 members of the STF had sustained any serious injury; bullet marks have been found on the neck and upper part of the torso of the deceased; bullet marks are indicative of the deceased having been shot from close range; many of the bodies bear marks on the limbs which indicate the victims limbs were tied with ropes; the red sanders logs found at the site of the offence already bear the government stamp and number in white colour as in done in the case of logs only after being seized and stored in the godowns belonging to the Forest Department. Several media reports, photographs, other fact finding missions and opinions of the forensic experts have also raised serious questions challenging the genuineness of the ‘encounter’. Further, the police version that the deceased were armed with stones, sickles and axes, reinforces that the police firing did not respect the “principles of necessity and proportionality”, which must guide the use of force by law enforcing personnel.
The NHRC in its ‘guidelines/procedures to be followed in cases of deaths caused in police action’ issued in 2003 and revised in May 2010 clearly state the need for encounter killings by the police to be investigated by an independent investigation agency and mandate for a magisterial enquiry to be held within three months. The guidelines also prescribe the manner in which the post-mortem examination is to be conducted. The guidelines’ specifically state that all deaths in police action shall be reported to the NHRC by the Senior Superintendent of Police/ Superintendent of Police within 48 hours. These guidelines have been upheld and reiterated by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in PUCL v. State of Maharashtra (2014) 10 SCC 635. The ‘UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials’ lays down detailed guidelines on instances of encounter killings. It clearly directs the police officials to exercise restraint in use of force and firearms and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved causing minimum damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.
The statements of the two witnesses Paramatha Sekhar and Sitherimalai Balachandran, who have been presented before the National Human Rights Commission in New Delhi on 13th April and the third witness Ilangovan presented before the Joint Registrar of the Hon’ble NHRC in Pondicherry on 15th April, prima facie demonstrate that this incident is one of abduction (illegal arrest and arbitrary detention), torture (custodial torture) and cold blooded murder (extra-judicial killing) by the AP Police. From their statements, it becomes clear that the victims were initially abducted by Police officials, and then tortured and murdered while in custody, after which their bodies were most probably placed at the scene of offence to give the appearance of an encounter conducted in self-defence. Ilangovan’s statement deposed before our fact finding team and the Hon’ble Commission confirms the venue of torture and execution to be the compound shared by the DFO and DIG of the AP Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling STF (APRS-STF). It has to be noted that the DIG Dr. M. Kanta Rao has his office cum residence provided in the same compound, as admitted by him to the team.
The family members (mostly young women in their 20s) of the deceased victims, killed by the APRS-STF, have condemned the State’s claim that the deceased men were involved in the cutting down of red sander trees that particular day. In the lookout for employment because of absolute poverty, due to complete failure of state supported schemes like MGNAREGA in their particular region for over a year, small land holdings and hilly terrain, they migrated to the coffee estates in Karnataka and Kerala. For masonry and coolie work, people also migrated to larger cities like Chennai and Pondicherry. 18 family members of the deceased victims residing in villages separated from each other by considerable distances, while deposing independently before the fact finding team members, narrated that the deceased men left their respective villages located in Tiruvannamalai district only in the afternoon of 6th April and those residing in villages of Dharmapuri district left their respective villages only in the evening of 5th April and resided at another place for that night. Ilangovan’s testimony confirms the same. The AP Police has claimed the encounter occurred in the early hours on 7th April. Given that the deceased started travelling from their villages only after 1 PM on 6th April, in no circumstances could they have travelled a distance of almost 300 kms, using various modes of transportation and walking taking atleast 12 hours, cutting the red sanders trees and then carrying it to the alleged “encounter spot” which is 3 kms away from the actual forest.
It is also important to note that the bodies were left in the open under the sun for more than 14 hours if the police version and hospital records can be relied upon, raising questions of the intention behind the delay which certainly would have destroyed crucial evidences related to the case. The SV Medical College staff mentioned to the fact finding team members that the injured policemen (only minor injuries with blunt objects) arrived at the hospital on 7th April at 11:30 AM while the bodies of the 20 deceased arrived only from 8:30 PM to 11 PM on the same day. The fact finding team is of the opinion, it would have been possible to save lives if after the alleged encounter the injured were immediately given medical attention. It was also told by the Panchayat Presidents in the respective villages to the fact finding team that more than a thousand people are languishing in the different prisons in Andhra Pradesh under charges of being red sanders cutters. There has been no information available about middlemen and the big mafias being arrested and in the jail but only the poor workers.
It goes without saying that in a democracy like India, run by the rule of law, the presumption must be that the police would not kill citizens arbitrarily. Both domestic laws and international standards accepted by India lay down very clear guidelines for the use of firearms and of lethal force by the law enforcement officials. The fact, or the suspicion, that a man or men are criminals, or might be committing a crime, does not permit the police to kill the suspects. There must be a very clear and immediate danger to the lives of the policemen concerned, or to the general public. And even in circumstances when the use of firearms is justified, shooting to kill is the last resort for law enforcement officials who are expected to be trained to disable and arrest violent suspects by aiming below the waist. The killing therefore of 20 men without a criminal record or history of violence, whom the DIG himself described as labourers, was both extraordinary and a matter of grave concern. There has been an outcry in the media. The Supreme Court of India, the Madras and Andhra Pradesh High Courts have taken cognizance of this incident, as has the National Human Rights Commission, suo- moto and on an urgent complaint made by People’s Watch numbered as Case No. 474/1/3/2015/AFE.
While both High Courts and the NHRC have passed interim orders, People’s Watch believed it might be helpful to these judicial and quasi-judicial processes to have facts collected and analysed by individuals without any interest in this incident other than to see the truth emerge. At its invitation, Justice Hosbet Suresh, formerly Judge of the Bombay High Court, Shri Satyabrata Pal, former member of the NHRC, Shri E.N. Rammohan, former DGP of the BSF, Dr. Professor. Jawahirullah, current Ramnad MLA from Tamil Nadu, Advocate B.S. Ajeetha from the Madras High Court and Dr. Savior Selva Suresh, Professor of Forensic Medicine, Vellammal Medical College Hospital and Research Centre, Madurai undertook the fact finding mission. Justice H. Suresh was the Convenor of the team. The Executive Director of People’s Watch, Shri Henri Tiphagne, the Director Programs of People’s Watch. Shri Mathew Jacob and other staff of People’s Watch and Dr. Perumal Krishnamoorthy of the Working Group on Human Rights in India and UN, New Delhi accompanied and assisted the fact finding team.