The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Friday recommended a CBI investigation into the killing of 20 men by an Andhra Pradesh police special task force in the Seshachalam forest near Tirupati on April 7, saying there were “good grounds to think that there was serious violation of human rights”.
The NHRC directed the Andhra Pradesh government to pay Rs 5 lakh as immediate interim relief to the dependents of each of the 20 killed and submit a “compliance report with proof of payment” within eight weeks.
NHRC member Justice D Murugesan told The Indian Express that the Andhra Pradesh government was refusing to share crucial information on the “encounter”, including post-mortem reports and documents, with those probing the case for the commission.
Immediately after the “encounter”, the Andhra Pradesh police had claimed that those killed had been chopping red sanders trees to smuggle them out of the forest. But an investigation by The Indian Express blew holes in the official version. While the police claimed that the “smugglers” had been chopping and carrying the logs the night before the “encounter”, phone records of at least four of the victims showed that two of them were travelling for most of April 6, and arrived at the “encounter” spot – Chandragiri Mandal near Rangampet village – only around 2.30 am on April 7, barely three hours before the “encounter”.
The records also showed that a third victim had reached the Tamil Nadu-Andhra border, over 100 km from the “encounter” site, at around 5.30 pm on April 6, while the cellphone of the fourth remained active till at least 7.55 pm on April 10. All four were shot dead on April 7, between 5.30 am and 6 am, by a group of forest guards and members of a police task force formed to prevent smuggling of red sanders, according to the FIRs.
The phone call records supported the version of the three witnesses in the case who told the NHRC that they were picked up by members of the task force and forest guards the previous day.
In a statement, the NHRC, which registered a case suo motu on the incident, said: “Considering the background of the victims, the delay in registration of FIR, improvements made by the officers of the state government, the nature of weapons allegedly seized from the spot, the testimony of Sekhar, A Balachandran, M Illango and the reluctance of the state government to share even basic information with the commission, we find that:
* There are good grounds to think that there was serious violation of human rights of the 20 persons who were killed by STF personnel on 7th April, 2015 in Seshachalam forest of Chittoor district.
* The victims were very poor and their families are suffering under deprivation.
* The families cannot be allowed to starve and die waiting for the final outcome of the enquiry by NHRC or investigation by an unbiased investigating agency.”
The NHRC said it was making “the following directions and recommendations:
* The government of Andhra Pradesh shall pay Rs 5 lakh as immediate interim relief to the dependents of each of the 20 persons who were killed by STF personnel… compliance report with proof of payment shall be submitted to the commission within eight weeks.
* District Magistrate, Chittoor, shall promptly take steps to disburse financial assistance to the dependents of 13 victims who belonged to Scheduled Tribe… and submit action taken report to the commission within eight weeks.
* The government of India and the government of Andhra Pradesh shall have FIR No. 42/15, 43/15 and 46/15, PS Chandragiri investigated by CBI after completion of necessary formalities and shall submit an action taken report to the Commission within four weeks.
* The present investigating officer of FIR No. 42/15, 43/15 and 46/15 shall get the statements of witnesses recorded u/s 164 CrPC before a competent magistrate in Tamil Nadu at the earliest.
* DGP, Tamil Nadu, shall continue to provide adequate protection to the witnesses namely Sekhar, A Balachandran and M Illango, their families and the presidents of the panchayats where they are living.
* Chief Secretary and DGP, Andhra Pradesh, shall appear in person before the commission on the June 9 at 11 am to furnish the information and produce the record as directed by the commission.”