India: Suspected unlawful killings by Andhra Pradesh police must be investigated

Photo: AFP/Getty Images.

The killing of 20 suspected red sandalwood smugglers by the Andhra Pradesh police must be investigated in a swift, thorough, and independent manner, Amnesty International India said today. If the killings are found to be unlawful, those responsible should be brought to justice.

On Tuesday 7 April, Andhra Pradesh police and forest officials shot dead 20 suspected red sandalwood smugglers in Chittoor district and injured eight others. A senior police official told journalists that the police found the men illegally cutting down endangered red sandalwood trees. He said that when the men were asked to surrender, they attacked the police with stones and axes, forcing them to open fire in self-defence. However no police official was injured. Most of the suspected smugglers were shot in the back.

“There must be a criminal investigation to determine whether the police used excessive force, and whether the killings amount to ‘fake encounters’, or staged extrajudicial executions”, said Abhirr VP, Senior Campaigner at Amnesty International India.

“The police are not above the law, and must not be treated like they are. Lethal force should not be used except when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

The police are not above the law, and must not be treated like they are. Lethal force should not be used except when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.
Abhirr VP, Senior Campaigner at Amnesty International India.

India’s National Human Rights Commission has said that the incident “involved a serious violation of human rights of the individuals” and that “the opening of firing cannot be justified on the ground of self-defence since it resulted in the loss of lives of 20 persons.” It has asked senior government and police officials to explain the actions of the police and forest officials within two weeks.

In recent years, there have been several ‘encounter’ killings of suspected red sandalwood smugglers by the police. In May 2014, the police killed three suspected smugglers in Chittoor. Another five suspected smugglers were reported as having been killed in Andhra Pradesh between June and August. Government officials have also been killed in attacks by suspected smugglers.

“In many cases the so-called smugglers are poor woodcutters employed by organized gangs,” said Abhirr VP.
“The curbing of red sandalwood smuggling must not be used as an excuse to ignore human rights.”