Twenty men gunned down by Andhra Pradesh security personnel last week in what the state said was an encounter with red sandalwood smugglers were labourers picked up by police the night before, two avowed witnesses told the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on Monday.
The statements of the two men, both daily wage workers, were released by their lawyer, Vrinda Grover, amid tensions between Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu and a national controversy over the killings.
A third person, who could not be produced before the rights watchdog but whose testimony was released by Grover, told a detailed tale of ten policemen rounding up 20 unidentified men in a pick-up truck the night of April 6.
All three men say they survived due to “sheer providence” the incident that some activists have described as a “massacre” of innocent labourers by police.
“Such a brazen and arbitrary killing under the guise of an ‘encounter’ calls for an urgent investigation…to dislodge the long history of impunity enjoyed by the police,” said Grover, a Supreme Court advocate.
The commission ordered police protection for the men and directed the Andhra Pradesh chief secretary as well as director general of police to conduct a magisterial probe.
Following the incident, the Andhra government said the men from neighbouring Tamil Nadu were red sandalwood smugglers and were killed after they attacked a police task force that came upon them, as the outnumbered security personnel opened fire in self-defence.
However, political parties and rights groups picked holes in the police claims and pointed out discrepancies in the encounter theory, with activists saying the killings were a violation of human rights.
The NHRC also said the names of all officers involved in the incident should be collected and submitted to it by April 22 and the weapons allegedly used must be kept in safe custody along with log books, police registers and diary entries.
The two men from Tamil Nadu who recorded their statements in Delhi said on April 6 several people were arrested by Andhra police, including the father of one of the men, from a bus headed towards Tirupati where they were going to work in a construction project.
The next morning they learnt the people arrested had been gunned down by police, the men said.
The third Tamil Nadu resident, who could not make it to the NHRC office on Monday, said he was searching for work when two policemen carrying rifles “pulled” him and a few others into a large “open lorry of the Eicher brand.”
He added that he saw 10 men carrying guns and 20 others whom he could not identify.
The man said he escaped from the truck when it stopped near the Keezh Tirupati temple and found his way home, but he discovered later that a friend who was taken by police was killed in the alleged encounter.