8:31 pm - Saturday November 7, 2015

Killed red sander ‘smugglers’ taken off bus: Witness account punches holes in police’s story

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The Andhra Pradesh police version of events with regards to the killing of 20 red sanders smugglers in Chittoor district has received a crippling blow after a ‘witness’ has come forward to say that he saw seven of the supposed ‘smugglers’ dragged off a bus by Andhra Pradesh policemen near the border between the two states, mere hours before the incident.
The man, identified as a labourer named Sekhar from Murugapandi village, reportedly said that he had been sitting on the same bus, when police had boarded and picked passengers off it.
The Indian Express spoke to villagers as well as some of Sekar’s relatives, to whom he had spoken after the incident. He had reportedly told them that he had been spared “because he was sitting next to a woman and police thought he was her husband”.The report adds that Sekhar had told villagers he was with D Mahendran, a plumber who had offered to help him find the job of a carpenter. The Express narrates his account as follows:
“Mahendran had a window seat. A middle-aged woman was in the middle seat and Sekhar next to her. A few kilometres before the Andhra check-post, the bus stopped. A police team entered the bus through the rear door and started picking up passengers, one at a time. The police took Mahendran with them but spared him because they thought he was the woman passenger’s husband.”
The Times of India notes that soon after the incident, Sekhar said he got off the bus at the next stop and returned to his village.
Since then he has reportedly been in hiding, because he is afraid that the police will catch and kill him for speaking out. However he has been in touch with some reporters, and also reportedly gave a statement to a Tamil television channel.
Reports said that Sekhar could appear before the National Human Rights Commission which is probing the incident.
Villagers have also told reporters that after the ‘encounter’, police had come by with photographs of the men to the village, and asked that they be identified.
The damning statement by Sekhar comes on top of a number of glaring discrepancies in the police version of events, which was that the encounter had taken place while members of the Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling Special Task Force (RSASTF) had been engaged in combing operations in Srinivasa Mangapuram, Srivarimettu and Eethangunta and wood cutters engaged in chopping down the rare trees had attacked them with stones and axes. The police have maintained that they acted in self defence.
However for one thing, as pointed out in this Indian Express report, “At one of the two sites where bodies were found, seven of the nine dead had been shot in the face or the back of the head. Many had burn injuries — on the abdomen, shoulders and hands, the skin peeling off”.
The police had said that the ‘burn’ marks had been caused by the ‘summer heat’.
And as pointed out by Firstpost senior editor G Pramod Kumar, “How is it possible in an armed melee, that too one which took place in the woods, that the task force members were able to take aim at the victims’ faces and the backs of their heads? If it was indeed in self defence as they claim, where are the injuries of the task force members? Reportedly, only two of them were injured. Do two injuries warrant a firing that killed 20 people?”
The Times of India added that “the logs strewn near the bodies were evidently not fresh: A few of them had numbers neatly painted on them and could have been from an earlier seizure.” Also raising suspicion was the fact that there were no red sanders trees in the vicinity of the location where the encounter had taken place.
The TOI report also quoted CPI’s P Harinath Reddy , who visited the spots, as saying that the knives the men were found with were rusted. “They could not have used them to cut anything. It’s a staged encounter.The government is targeting workers instead of going after contractors who employ them to smuggle wood,“ he told the newspaper.
A fresh report in Times of India today added that “some bodies appeared to have been dragged from another place. None of the trees on the periphery of the clearing where the bodies were found had bullet marks. While the STF said there were more than 100 people carrying logs, only about 20 logs were recovered – as many as the men killed.”Human rights groups have been up in arms over the incident, that they have described as nothing short of cold blooded murder. A number of civil rights groups have moved courts, and the National Human Rights Commission has asked the government of Andhra Pradesh for a detailed report after one of its members observed that it involved “serious violation” of human rights of the individuals and the firing could not be justified on the ground of self defence.
The Home Ministry has also stepped in and asked the government for a report on the incident. PTI reported that Naidu had already explained to the Home Minister the circumstances leading to the killing of the 20 men. A report is expected to follow.
The incident has caused widespread anger in Tamil Nadu, with protests across the state. A number of Andhra Pradesh state transport buses were damaged, and security has been stepped up at establishments belonging to people of Andhra origin.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister OP Panneerselvam has also written a strongly-worded letter to Naidu demanding a “credible and speedy” inquiry into the episode and responsibility fixed for possible human rights violations.
How the Andhra government reacts to the latest piece of evidence remains to be seen. So far they have been stoutly defending the actions of the police. How long they will be able to do so remains a mystery.

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