Updated: May 21, 2015 12:36:14 am
Nearly six weeks ago, a special squad of the Andhra Pradesh police shot dead 20 men from Tamil Nadu in the Seshachalam forests near Tirupati. They were described as red sanders smugglers, who were killed when the police team stumbled upon hundreds of them in the wee hours of April 7 and fired in self-defence. The police version of the encounter was questioned by the media and human rights groups since the evidence at the site didn’t conform with it. The next day, this newspaper met associates of the dead men in Tamil Nadu villages who narrated how the police had picked up their friends from different locations near the inter-state border.
Analysis of cellphone records of the dead men, photographs and video clips from the encounter site, in the possession of this newspaper, reveals more chinks in the police story. The call records of some of the dead men indicate that they were not at the site when they were supposed to have been chopping wood. The photographs reveal bodies strewn around in an open area, with logs of wood neatly placed next to them. The police had allegedly fired three rounds to scare the “smugglers”, but the bullet wounds on the bodies indicate shots fired at close range. Burn marks and signs of torture are evident. No cartridges were found at the site, nor tools or implements for chopping wood. The two FIRs filed in connection with the encounter mention hundreds of smugglers attacking the police party with stones and arrows. But not one of the “hundreds of smugglers” was arrested by the police. A forensic specialist who examined the material concludes that it was no encounter but “cold-blooded, gruesome murder”.
Andhra Pradesh has instituted a special investigation team to probe the encounter. The National Human Rights Commission is expected to present its findings. The questions raised by the media, human rights groups as well as families and associates of the victims will, it is to be hoped, be addressed by these agencies. Red sanders worth hundreds of crores of rupees are smuggled out of the country every year. Those who cut down the protected species are the lowest in the smuggling chain. The Andhra police are yet to reveal details of the smuggling racket or arrest the kingpins. Are we to assume that the task force is clueless about the people who control the illicit trade? Between deeds of omission and commission, it has a lot to answer for.
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