A series of killings by Indian police during the past week is drawing the attention of human rights groups, who are demanding a government investigation.
Last Monday, Vikaruddin Ahmed, a suspect on trial in south India’s Telangana state, filed a petition in a court pleading that he be shifted from a district jail to another in the state capital, Hyderabad, because he feared of being killed in police custody.
A day later, Vikaruddin and four other Muslim prisoners were shot dead inside a bus while they were being transported by police from a jail in Warangal district to Hyderabad, just three hours before a scheduled court ruling on the transfer request.
The police report said the five men, who had been arrested between 2007 and 2010 as suspects in terrorism-related incidents, had been shot dead Tuesday morning when they attempted to overpower their police guard following a bathroom break.
But the relatives of the killed men and some rights groups say photographs and video from the scene circulating in the media contradicted the police version of the encounter, instead indicating the men were killed while handcuffed.
“It is clear from the picture that using the handcuffs and a chain he was tied to the seat. How could one from such a position pose a threat to the lives of the armed policemen for which he had to be shot,” Mohammed Ahmed, father of Vikaruddin, said to VOA.
Amnesty International said it received video footage that showed all five men appeared to be handcuffed when they were shot.
“Impunity for extrajudicial executions is a serious issue in India. Authorities in Telangana need to urgently conduct an independent criminal investigation into the case to determine if it involved extrajudicial executions disguised as ‘encounter’ killings,” Abhirr V. P., Senior Campaigner at Amnesty International India said in a statement.
Ahmed said that police had failed to substantiate evidence in court in support of the charges against Vikaruddin and the other four men.
“All of them were set to be acquitted within weeks. None can take a suicidal step to attack police at this point of the trial. I am 100% sure that it was a fake encounter and that in a pre-meditated act they murdered the five men who were all handcuffed or shackled,” he said.
Ahmed has lodged a complaint with the police charging that the prisoners executed in a so-called “fake encounter.”
The killings in Telangana took place a few hours after an incident in neighboring Andhra Pradesh state, where police shot dead 20 suspected smugglers in a sandalwood forest.
Authorities said forest officials and a special police anti-smuggling task force were on a joint operation in the forest when they spotted about 100 illegal loggers. The police claim they were attacked by the gang wielding axes and stones, and fired back in self-defense.
Since then, local media have reported that witnesses claim the clash was allegedly staged by police to cover up the killing of men who were in police custody.
Two of those witnesses now are scheduled to testify before India's National Human Rights Commission.
The killing of the alleged smugglers shows scant respect for human life and law, said Chennai-based legal rights activist Sudha Ramalingam.
“The police/forest officials have failed to show even a prima facie wound to justify their stand that the encounter in the forest was an exercise of self-defense,” Ramalingam, a lawyer of the Madras High Court, said to VOA.
India’s National Human Rights Commission has issued notices to authorities in both states calling for reports on the killings.
Muslim community leaders said that extra-judicial killings by law enforcing agencies such as the five in Telangana state could lead to more trouble in society.
“The police cannot be allowed to function as judge, jury and executioner. [The] police version of the story seems hollow. The government must bring out the truth through independent inquiry,” said Asaduddin Owaisi, a Member of the Parliament and president of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen.
Zafarul-Islam Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, a New Delhi-based umbrella body of Indian Muslim organizations said the groups are considering appealing to international bodies to investigate the situation.
“If we fail to get justice, we will start approaching international human rights organizations like the U.N. and EU human rights panels and others to ensure justice to the victims of state terror like this case in Telangana,” Khan said.
He said that although India's top leaders, including the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, claim that the country's Muslim community is immune to terrorism, such actions by security agencies across the country could push Muslim youths to extremism.