An alleged attempt by the High Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) to “forcibly” interrogate three witnesses of the Tirupati encounter, in which 20 villagers were killed, has triggered concerns about their well-being and made the victims’ lawyers question the impartiality of the probe.
The incident reportedly occured on Monday night, after witnesses were taken by three different police teams to retrace the route and verify claims made in their statements before the court and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
Lawyer K Umar, who accompanied Elango (19) — one of the three witnesses — said they began their journey on Monday afternoon and visited at least five places that were mentioned in the witness statements.
“Although Andhra High Court had given permission for SIT team to take further statements from witnesses, they were interrogated throughout the journey. At one point, at a hotel in Kannamangalam, where Elango claimed to have had biriyani in the statement, SIT team summoned the hotel owner and asked whether he was running the hotel legally. The police team camped there for more than one-and-half hours. By the time we entered Andhra border, it was dark. But still they insisted on completing the inquiry. At Nagari Puthur, police dropped Elango in a dark area and told him to find the bus stand. We protested and, finally, they took us to the bus stand,” said Umar.
According to him, after visiting Nagari Puthur, Elango was supposed to be taken to the main forest office near Tirupati — the place from where he claimed to have escaped while officers were taking photographs of other detainees a night before the enounter.
“However, they took us directly to SIT headquarters, which is a guest house inside a private college. We reached there at around 2.30 am on Tuesday. At one point, Elango was taken upstairs for over an hour. I was scared as he was taken by an officer wearing jeans and carrying a revolver in his hand. I raised an alarm, but they refused to respond. They brought him back to the ground floor at around 5.30 am,” said Umar.
After several rounds of negotiations between Tamil Nadu officers and volunteers of People’s Watch, an organisation that gave shelter to all the three witnesses, the SIT team finally agreed to release both Sekhar and Elango from their custody at around 11 am on Tuesday.
The third witness — Balachandran — had refused to enter Andhra border, after giving a petition in writing to the Tamil Nadu police that he feared for his life in the event of being handed over to Andhra officials.
When contacted, a senior official denied allegations of coercion.
“The HC had allowed the SIT to examine the witnesses again about the routes taken by them in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu that day. So we asked them to show us the route. They were sent back later,’’ the official said.
Vrinda Grover, senior human rights lawyer representing the victims of the encounter, said: “Here, the witnesses are the most underprivileged. They have been cooperating with the investigation all along. They were not hiding anywhere and repeating the same statement from day one. When they are ready to cooperate, why was it necessary for SIT to interrogate witnesses at their headquarters in Tirupati? After these witnesses came out with their statements immediately after the encounter, SIT did not approach them or try to locate them for long time. Going by the conduct of SIT, we find it difficult to believe that SIT is doing a fair and impartial probe. We are extremely concerned that some harm may come to these witnesses or they may be falsely implicated in cases as they provide a crucial link to the abduction of woodcutters a night before the encounter.”
Meanwhile, MDMK leader Vaiko alleged that witnesses were under pressure to turn hostile due to threats from AIADMK men.
He said AIADMK leaders of Tiruvannamalai had offered them money to withdraw statements against the Andhra Pradesh police officers.
(With inputs from Sreenivas Janyala, Hyderabad)