TIRUPATI/VELLORE: The Andhra Pradesh Police and forest officials on Tuesday denied entry to an eight-member fact-finding team led by a retired high court judge to the sensitive Seshachalam Reserve Forest, where 20 people from Tamil Nadu were killed in an encounter with police personnel recently.
The team comprising retired Mumbai High Court Judge Suresh Hosbet, former member of NHRC Sathyabratha Pal, former Director General of Border Security Force EN Rammohan, advocate Vrinda Grover, advocate Ajitha, Ramanathapuram MLA M H Jawahirullah, forensic expert Dr Xavier and executive director of People’s Watch Henri Tiphagne reached the spot around noon on Tuesday.
However, they were not allowed inside the reserve forest. The team waited in vain for nearly two hours before returning. “The police and forest department personnel deployed at the entry point of the Reserve Forest did not allow us inside,” Tiphagne told Express.
The members of the team have reportedly communicated to the top-level officials of AP government, including DGP, the Superintendent of Police of Chittoor district and the Principal Conservator of Forest, about their visit to the encounter spots – Cheekatigala Kona and Eethagunta – in the forest under Chandragiri mandal a couple of days ago.
“We have also received acknowledgement from the respective officials’ office on Monday night itself,” Tiphagne said.
He produced two witnesses – Sekar and Balachandran – and also submitted a statement of the third witness Illango before the NHRC that countered the encounter theory of the AP police.
The team also met the head of the Red Sander Anti-Smuggling Task Force, which had gunned down the woodcutters, but he reportedly refused to speak to the team citing a High Court order directing the police not to share information regarding the probe with media.
“We came here to inspect the encounter spot as we want to know the truth regarding the killing of 20 woodcutters in the encounter. But the police are refusing to allow us inside the forest,” said Suresh, a retired judge who is part of the team, while talking to reporters at Tirupati. “If the encounter killings are justified then the facts should be presented before the fact-finding team,” he demanded.
When asked, Tirupati wildlife Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) G Srinivasulu said that two parties — the People’s Watch and a group of advocates from Tiruvannamalai — had contacted him over phone seeking permission to enter the forest. “However, I explained to them that as per law they are not allowed into the sanctuary without getting permission from Chief Wildlife Warder based at Hyderabad,” he added.
Further, when asked whether they wanted to go to the sanctuary or the scene of offence, they had told him that they required permission to visit the scene of offence. “I said in such case they have to take permission from the Andhra Pradesh government for going to the spot,” Srinivasulu said.
“In the normal course, those who want to visit the forest for purposes like research and eco-tourism have to obtain permission from the Chief Wildlife Warder and usually forest staff accompany such visitors and guide them in the sanctuary. But this being a special case, I explained to them about the Forest Act guidelines and appealed to them to extend their cooperation and respect the law,” he said.