Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu on Friday assured Tamil Nadu counterpart O Panneerselvam of a speedy probe into the contentious 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 the two states and triggered a national controversy, with the Andhra government saying the men from the neighbouring region were red sandalwood smugglers, while Tamil Nadu said they were innocent labourers.
Replying to Panneerselvam who had expressed concern over the April 7 incident, Naidu wrote that his government had ordered a magisterial probe into the case and autopsies of the bodies was complete.
Andhra authorities say the men were killed after they attacked a police task force that came upon them, as the outnumbered security personnel opened fire in self-defence.
The state high court reviewed a report submitted by director general of police JV Ramudu and decided to hear the matter on Monday without passing any directions. The bench, however, asked if a case of unnatural death or murder had been registered to which the government counsel replied in the negative.
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.
He has been the target of protests across 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 with MDMK chief Vaiko and his supporters holding a massive demonstration in Vellore, 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.
Following the incident, search operations for smugglers have intensified in the Sheshachalam and other forests where the red sanders trees grow.
Police are also scrutinising the call details of the men killed and CCTV footage from 16 cameras in the area where the encounter took place.