The Andhra Pradesh high court ordered the state government on Friday to register a case of murder in the controversial killing of 20 alleged smugglers in the forests of Chittoor this week, amid accusations that police gunned down the men in a fake encounter.
The killings sparked tensions between Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, with the Andhra government saying the men from the neighbouring state were red sandalwood smugglers, while Tamil Nadu said they were innocent labourers.
The court rejected a report submitted by state director general of police JV Ramudu, as a petitioner raised questions about the legality of the FIR registered by Andhra police and activists demanded a probe into the killings that they said were a deliberate “massacre”.
“Why should not a case of unnatural death under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code be filed?” the court asked.
Andhra authorities say the men were killed after they attacked a police task force that came upon them on Tuesday, as the outnumbered security personnel opened fire in self-defence.
Chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu had vowed to curb the smuggling menace, a nagging problem in his home district, Chittoor, as his government has big plans to generate revenues from global auction of the wood.
Anger mounted in Tamil Nadu as 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.
According to reports, most of the corpses were decomposed, leading to allegations that the killings occurred much before Tuesday, while some bodies had burn marks and others had bullet injuries in the face and back of the head, indicating they were shot at close range.
Also, sources said several of the sandalwood logs found next to the bodies had white paint and code numbers on them, sparking suspicion that these were brought from a stockyard after the encounter, in which none of the policemen or forest officials was wounded.
Witnesses allege a few of those killed were pulled off a bus to Chittoor by policemen from Andhra Pradesh.
The Madras high court refused to order a fresh autopsy on six of the men, but asked for the preservation of their bodies until April 17. The petition filed by the wife of one of those killed was rejected.
“There is no jurisdiction for this court to pass any order on re-post mortem because already Andhra Pradesh high court is seized of the matter and there is a PIL pending in the Supreme Court,” the judge said.
The court order sparked protests across Tamil Nadu, while MDMK chief Vaiko and his supporters held a massive demonstration in Vellore district, demanding a CBI probe into the case.
“What happened in the Andhra forests is a planned, premeditated murder, after the woodcutters were tortured. They were shot at point blank range,” he said.
There have been encounters in the past with casualties on both sides. Two forest officials were killed in December 2013 and three wounded in an attack by smugglers in Chittoor. Last May, police had killed three smugglers.