TIRUPATI–Kanagarani last saw her husband when he left their village on a mountainside in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to look for work.
“He was only a painter,” said the tearful 20-year-old, who had been married for just six months and who like many Tamils goes by only one name. “Now I only want justice.”
Indian police said last week they had acted in self defence when they fired on a group of alleged timber smugglers in the remote forests of Tirupati in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh, home to the rare trees that produce red sandalwood.
But activists and relatives have challenged that version of events, and on Wednesday a case was filed with a local court charging “unknown persons” in the force with murder and abduction.
It would not be the first deadly clash between police in the state and loggers of red sandalwood, which is smuggled to China and Japan where it is highly prized for its rich hue and purported medicinal value.
But the number of victims in this case was particularly high. All 20 were from Tamil Nadu, where street protests erupted last week after news of the killings emerged.
Rights activists say the evidence points to a “fake encounter” – a commonly used term in India for staged confrontations in which police or military forces execute unarmed suspects and later claim it as self-defence.
“If you do this for long enough, you can just tell when an encounter is staged,” said Narayana Rao, an activist with the Civil Liberties Committee who helped lead a fact-finding mission at the spot where the incident purportedly took place.
“In a real encounter, the person runs at least a little once they’ve been shot, so bullet marks and blood stains are spread across the site.
“But here the blood is pooled only where the bodies were found, and the bullet wounds were concentrated in the victims’ heads and torsos, suggesting they’d been brought here and shot. “Police in Andhra Pradesh declined to comment on those allegations.
‘They were going to find work’
When the activists took their findings to G. Srinivasalu, a district forest official in Tirupati, he said the victims were armed with axes, knives, and rudimentary firearms, and posed a threat to forest department personnel.
“Where were you when the forest officers were tragically murdered?” he said, referring to a December 2013 incident when two rangers were hacked to death by a group of smugglers.
On Monday, three witnesses told the National Human Rights Commission in New Delhi that police had arrested the victims at a forest checkpoint hours earlier, suggesting they were already in police custody when they died.
“They were going to find work in brick kilns,” said Prabhakaran in Arasanattham village, where many of the victims – including his father and Kanagarani’s husband – were from.
Prabhakaran told media the villagers initially believed the men had been arrested, after one survivor saw police hauling them off the bus on which they were travelling. They only found out through the television that their loved ones had been killed.
In the past decade, police have seized nearly 15,000 tonnes of red sandalwood and arrested over 6,000 people with alleged links to red sandalwood smuggling. They have mostly been migrant workers, while high-level culprits are seldom caught.
Tamil Nadu provides hundreds of migrant workers for the illegal but lucrative red sandalwood trade, although it remains unclear whether the latest victims were even involved in logging.
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