14/04/2015 11:18 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Andhra Pradesh Forest Killings: A Drink Saved His Life, Says Witness Who Escaped

SAJJAD HUSSAIN via Getty Images
Indian witness-survivor Sekar, who was witness to the April 7, 2015 killings of 20 suspected illegal loggers by the Andhra Pradesh police, looks on during a press conference organised by the National Human Rights Commision in New Delhi on April 13, 2015. Rights groups called April 8 for a full investigation into the death of 20 suspected illegal loggers, killed when police opened fire in a forest in southern India notorious for sandalwood smuggling. AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN (Photo credit should read SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

It was liquor that saved him, said a witness, who claimed to be traveling with the men allegedly killed by the Andhra Pradesh police in the Seshachalam forest near Tirupati on April 7, 2015.

On April 6, Balachandran, a daily wage labourer said that he traveled with eight other men, including his father, from their village in Tamil Nadu to Pondicherry to find work on the invitation of a contractor.

While waiting for the bus to the town of Arcot, Balachandran went to get a drink at the government liquor shop with another man, who knew the contractor. The eight men from his village had left when they returned from the shop.

On reaching Nagari Puttur in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, Balachandran said that his companion called the contractor to join the others, but they received a warning to turn back or risk being arrested. After reaching his village, he learned the contractor, his father, and other men from his village were taken into police custody.

They were killed in the forest.

Balachandran's story was narrated by Henri Tiphagne, who heads People's Watch, a Tamil Nadu-based human rights group, which is responsible for identifying three witnesses and bringing two of them to give their statements to the National Human Rights Commission in Delhi.

"It is the drink that saved his life,” Tiphagne said at a press conference on Monday in Delhi, where two witnesses were also present, but they declined from speaking to the media directly.

The Andhra Pradesh police claim they opened fire in self-defence against 20 red sandalwood smugglers, who attacked them with stones, sickles and firearms in the Seshachalam forests, but human rights activists say they carried out extrajudicial killings. So far, the Andhra Pradesh government has not complied with the Hyderabad High Court order to register a case for murder under Section 302. Last week, the Madras High Court ordered the preservation of the bodies of six men till April 17.

"It is seven days since these killings took place and there is no FIR,” said Tiphagne, accusing the AP police of “stage managed killings."

NHRC "binding" orders

On Monday, the National Human Rights Commission ordered an inquiry by a judicial magistrate into the killings, and it directed the Andhra Pradesh government to submit the names of all police personnel and forest officials in the STF by April 22.

"Ensure that all the weapons allegedly used by the STF and the deceased persons be placed in safe custody," the human rights body said in a statement. "Police register, log books, GD entries and any other documents relating to the incident shall not be destroyed, tampered with or weeded out during the pendency of the NHRC proceedings."

The NHRC called for the postmortem to be conducted in accordance with its 2013 guidelines, which includes videography, and it ordered police protection for the witnesses and their families. "These directions are binding,” said Vrinda Grover, a human rights lawyer, who is assisting People's Watch.

Tiphagne said that families in the village of Pudur Kollamedu are traumatised, especially since they haven’t been able to perform the last rites for the dead men following orders of the Madras High Court that their bodies be preserved. They are being held at the government hospital in the district of Tiruvannamalai. "That trauma of having their own relatives bodies still there, cremation not performed, is still hanging over their heads," he said. "They are very scared.”

"We believe there are more witnesses in the villages, maybe in Tamil Nadu, maybe elsewhere, and for the fear of their lives, they are refusing to speak of matters,” the human rights activist said.

"Dumped as dogs"

Another witness, Ilangovan, who was heading to find masonry work with his friend, told People's Watch that they were forced out of an auto by the police at Nagari Puttur. He claims that they were "dumped as dogs" into a lorry, carrying around 30 men, which traveled a short distance to the Rangers Office in Kezthirupathy, where the police took photos of the men. It was here that Ilangovan seized his chance to jump out of the truck and run into the forest.

He returned home to his village, Malakanvayoor in Tamil Nadu, the next day. His friend's body arrived in the night.

The NHRC has deputed an official to record the statement of Ilangovan, who could not come to Delhi because he does not have any identity card required for travel. People's Watch, which is continuing its fact-finding mission, will present its report to the human rights body at its next meeting on April 23 in Hyderabad.

Fake encounters

Human rights activist have railed against extrajudicial killings in India for decades. In December 2012, NHRC told the Supreme Court it had received 1,671 complaints of extrajudicial killings in the last five years,” according to the 2014 Human Rights Watch Report, which noted some steps initiated to address the problem.

In January 2012, the Supreme Court ordered an independent panel led by a retired judge to look into 22 alleged extrajudicial killings by police in Gujarat state between 2002 and 2006, the report said. In July 2013, the Supreme Court set up an independent panel led by a retired judge after groups from Manipur state filed a public interest petition seeking an investigation into 1,528 alleged extrajudicial executions between 1979 and 2012.

Grover rebuffed the AP government claim that its police personnel had acted in “self-defence.” "Who is going to decide that this was an encounter in self-defence where the force used against people alleged to have stones, axes, sickles is to fire bullets and shoot them in the face,” she said.

Meanwhile, the AP police reportedly arrested 63 red sandalwood smugglers from Tamil Nadu, allegedly belonging to the same group, in Nellore district on Monday.

Grover said whether the dead men were smugglers is not relevant. "Whether somebody is a smuggler or an alleged terrorist, or whatever heinous crime that we wish to imagine, the law of this country does not give authority to the police to kill that person,” she said.

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