Statements of survivors recorded at the National Human Rights Commission

New Delhi, 13 April 2015 – Three witness-survivors of the 7 April 2015 extra-judicial killing by the Andhra Pradesh Special Task Force (STF) came forward and recorded their statements at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) this morning. The survivors were accompanied by Henri Tiphagne of the Peoples’ Watch and Supreme Court advocate Vrinda Grover. The statements of the witnesses challenge the claim of “self defence” of the STF and the AP government.

A team of human rights activists from People’s Watch set out immediately on 7 April 2015 to conduct a fact-finding into the incident. “Our team informed the Governments and officials of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu of our fact finding and visited the scene of the alleged encounter, the concerned police stations, hospitals and post-mortem centres as well as the villages that the deceased victims belonged to and met with the family members of the victims,” said Henri Tiphagne. “It was during this mission, that our staff was able to identify and communicate with the three survivors who witnessed the killings.” The NHRC had taken Suo Moto cognizance of the alleged encounter in the Seshachalam forest, today the full Commission heard a complaint filed by Henri Tiphagne of People’s Watch. The Commission heard the two survivors and on its direction the statements of the two survivors were officially recorded. The Commission was also told that all the three survivors, their families and other persons in their villages are at grave personal risks.

On 7 April 2015 a joint operation carried out by a Special Task Force (STF) comprising police officials and forest officials resulted in the arbitrary and extrajudicial killing of 20 men in the Seshachalam forest area on the outskirts of Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh. The Andhra Pradesh government claimed that the 20 men were caught in the act of smuggling red sanders wood, that they attacked the STF with stones and sickles, and that the ‘encounter’ was carried out in self defence. Media reports and photographs have raised several questions about the so called ‘encounter’.

Shocking revelations of three survivors “The survivors who witnessed first-hand, the actions of the STF, have recorded their testimonies at grave personal risk to seek justice for the killings of the 20 men,” said Henri Tiphagne of Peoples’ Watch. “The three men survived the killings due to sheer providence and luck or their corpses would have been among those lying in the Seshachalam forest,” he said.

Witness 1, Sekar is a daily wage labourer. His statement shows that on 6 April 2015 on hearing from his relative and neighbour Mahendran about a construction job opportunity outside the village, he accompanied Mahendran and two other men Murthy and Munusamy from his village Pudur Kollamedu in Tiruvannamalai district to Chennai. While they were travelling in the bus, after crossing Arcot bus stand at around 2:30 PM, a man who looked about 30 years old, with a thick moustache, medium height and closely cropped hair, in mufti, boarded the bus and asked Mahendran, who was seated behind Sekar, to come with him. When Mahendran asked the man about his identity, the man aggressively caught hold of Mahendran’s shirt and forcibly took him out of the bus. As Sekar was alarmed and afraid, he remained silent. After a while, when Sekar discretely looked back he noticed that Murthy and Munusamy were also missing from the bus. Sekar was shocked, agitated and afraid. He got off at the next bus stop and with great difficulty made his way back home after changing buses and walking a considerable distance as he had only Rs. 90 in his pocket. The next day at 7:30 PM., some policemen came to Sekar’s village, showed him Mahendran’s photograph and told him that he has been shot dead in the forest region in Tirupati. On hearing this, Sekar fainted and was taken
ill. He later learnt that Murthy and Munasamy were among the 20 persons who were killed by the STF. While he wants to seek justice and bring the truth out that these people were picked by the police prior to the incident and killed, he continues to fear for his and his family members’ lives.

Witness 2, Balachandran is a daily wage labourer and occasionally travels outside his village for work in order to make ends meet. His statement shows on 4th April 2015 he got a call from Palani who is a contractor agent and who had provided him employment opportunities in the past. Agent Palani told Balachandran that there was a job opportunity in Pondicherry. On Agent Palani’s request, Balachandran agreed to bring some more men with him and reach Alangayam on 5th April 2015. On 5th April 2015, Balachandran along with 8 other men including his father Harikrishnan, and relatives reached Alagayam by night and met Agent Palani. Agent Palani then took all the 9 labourers to Nambiyampattu village and arranged for them to stay in the house of a woman. The next morning another man who is known to Agent Palani joined the labourers. While waiting for the bus to Arcot, Balachandran and this other man went to a TASMAC (Govt liquor shop) to take a drink. When Balachandran and this other man came back to the bus stop, the other labourers and Agent Palani were not to be seen. This other man then called Agent Palani who asked them to come to different places until the two men eventually reached Nagari Puthur, late in the night. Through the entire journey, the man with Balachandran spoke to Agent Palani a few times until finally on reaching Nagari Puthur the other man spoke to Agent Palani, disconnected the phone and told Bala that they should go back and that the police may arrest them if they do not, this man told Bala that Agent Palani had been arrested. Bala could not understand why the Police would arrest them, but he was scared on hearing that Agent Palani had been arrested. As Bala was worried about the safety of his father and other relatives, he called his relative Sivakumar on the phone, however a man whose voice he did not recognize answered the phone and said ‘Your men are here. So come to Tirupati immediately” and disconnected the phone before Bala could say anything. While he was making his way back to his village Bala learnt from TV news and news papers that some persons were killed by the STF near Tirupati. On making enquires Bala was shocked to find that the men who were killed included his father and the 7 other labourers. Bala made his way back to his home, performed the funeral rites of his father and has come to Delhi in order to seek justice and protection as he is petrified that the police personnel who killed his father and the other men may harm him and his family to prevent him from revealing the true facts of the incident.

Witness 3 Illangovan’s is a daily wage labourer. His statement (not yet produced before the NHRC) shows that on 6 April 2015 Illangovan was on his way, to find masonry work outside his village along with Paneerselvam who is also from his village, Malakanavayoor. At around 8.00 P.M when the two men got off at Nagari Puthur to eat something they caught sight of two policemen in uniform, carrying rifles. Panneerselvam sensed something was wrong and so both the men got into an auto. Within a few seconds the auto was surrounded by around 8 policemen in mufti who were all carrying pistols and interrogated us about where we were from. Illangovan and Panneerselvam truthfully replied saying they were on their way to find Coolie work. The Policemen forcible pulled Illangovan and Panneerselvam out of the auto and made them stand while they spoke on the phone. In a few minutes a large open Lorry (Eicher brand) carrying around 30 odd people arrived on the scene and the policemen threw Illangovan and Panneerselvam also into it. Around ten of the men in the lorry were carrying guns and seemed to be police men, however since it was very dark Illangovan could not see any of the persons faces clearly. The lorry after travelling some distancing stopped at the Rangers Office in Kezthirupathy. On stopping, the police personnel began took photographs of the men in the lorry, some of the police men were getting in and off the vehicle at the Rangers office. While the policemen were getting in and off the vehicle Illangovan managed to jump out of the Truck and escape into the dark forest. It was around 4.00 A.M by this time and Illangovan was not only petrified but also weak and
exhausted as he had not eaten. He cautiously made his way away from the site where the lorry had stopped and towards the main road. By around 8.00 A.M he managed to find two persons on a bike on a main road and requested them for a lift. Illangovan somehow managed to make his way back to his village and shared the ordeal he had been through with his parents. The same night his friend Panneerselvam’s body also reached the village .

“Such a brazen and arbitrary killing under the guise of an ‘encounter’ calls for an urgent investigation that is independent and credible in order to dislodge the long history of impunity enjoyed by the police, Unless accountability is secured and the perpetrators punished, such extrajudicial killings will continue. A SIT comprising of high level police officials who inspire confidence, monitored by the Supreme Court should be assigned the investigation of these killings to ensure that justice is done for the victims and the right to life of the citizens is protected. Investigation u/s 302 IPC for murder be initiated against members of the STF and the investigation should probe the role of senior officers in planning, masterminding and directing these killings ” said Supreme Court advocate Vrinda Grover.

A high level team comprising of Retd. Justice Suresh Hosbet, Mr. Satyabrata Pal, former member- NHRC, and Mr. E.N. Rammohan ex-DGP, BSF and others will in the course of its fact finding on 14 & 15 April 2015, will meet the concerned officials of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu; visit the scene of incident; the villages of the deceased; and meet with the survivors. The interim findings will be presented on 15th April 2015 in Vellore. The Final Report will be submitted to the NHRC during its hearing on 23 April 2015 in Hyderabad.

The following relief were sought from the NHRC –

Direct that adequate protection is provided to the three survivors and their families

Direct that prosecution be initiated against the STF

Direct that a Judicial Magistrate conducts an enquiry into the killings

Direct that the statements of all survivors is recorded before a Judicial Magistrate u/s 164 of CrPC

All police officers and forest officials of STF be placed under immediate suspension

All documents, log books, registers, weapons and other evidences pertaining to this incident be seized and placed in safe custody.

For further details and interviews, contact:

Mathew Jacob: [email protected]; mobile: 8860110520.

Ratna: [email protected]; mobile: 09582486431.