HYDERABAD, India (Reuters) - Indian police shot dead four men on Friday who were suspected of raping and killing a 27-year-old veterinarian near Hyderabad city, an action applauded by her family and many citizens outraged over sexual violence against women.
However, some rights groups and politicians criticized the killings, saying they were concerned the judicial process had been sidestepped.
The men had been in police custody and were shot dead near the scene of last week’s crime after they snatched weapons from two of the 10 policemen accompanying them, said police commissioner V.C. Sajjanar.
Thousands of Indians have protested in several cities over the past week following the veterinarian’s death, the latest in a series of horrific cases of sexual assault in the country.
The woman had left home for an appointment on her motor-scooter and later called her sister to say she had a flat tire. She said a truck driver had offered to help and that she was waiting near a toll plaza.
Police said she was abducted, raped and asphyxiated and her body was then set alight on the outskirts of Hyderabad. Four men were arrested.
Sajjanar, the police officer, said the men - two truck drivers and two truck cleaners, aged between 20 and 26 years - had been taken to the spot to help recover the victim’s mobile phone and other personal belongings on Friday morning.
“As the party approached this area today (during the) early hours, all the four accused got together. They started attacking the police party with stones, sticks and other materials,” he told reporters near the site of the shootings.
The men, who were not handcuffed, then snatched weapons away from the police and started firing at them, but were killed after the police retaliated. He did not say how the accused were able to overpower their escorts.
“Law has done its duty, that’s all I can say,” Sajjanar said.
The National Human Rights Commission, a government-funded watchdog, said it had ordered an investigation. “Death of four persons in alleged encounter with the police personnel when they were in their custody, is a matter of concern for the Commission,” it said in a statement.
Indian police have frequently been accused of extra-judicial killings, called “encounters”, especially in gangland wars in Mumbai and insurrections in the state of Punjab and in disputed Kashmir. Police officers involved in such killings were called “encounter specialists” and were the subject of several movies.
(Graphic: Custodial deaths in India- here)
The victim’s family welcomed the news the alleged perpetrators had been killed.
“I express my gratitude towards the police & govt for this. My daughter’s soul must be at peace now,” Reuters partner ANI quoted her father as saying.
A Reuters reporter saw the four men’s bodies lying in an open field, all of them face up and barefoot, with their clothes stained with blood, surrounded by policemen.
A large crowd gathered at the site and threw flower petals at police vans in support of the action. Some shouted “Long live police”, while others hoisted police officials onto their shoulders and burst firecrackers.
There was no immediate word from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government on the incident, but Maneka Gandhi, a lawmaker from his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said the police appeared to have over-reached.
“You can’t take the law in your own hands. The courts would’ve ordered them (the accused) to be hanged anyway. If you’re going to shoot them with guns before due process is followed, then what’s the point of having courts, police and law?” she said.
Tough laws were enacted after the 2012 gang rape and murder of a woman in a bus in New Delhi that led to an outpouring of anger across the country, but crimes against women have continued unabated.
(Graphic: Rape cases in India - here)
Fast track courts have been set up but cases have moved slowly, for lack of witnesses and the inability of many families to go through the long legal process. Some victims and their families have ended up being attacked for pursuing cases against powerful men, often local politicians.
Many Indians applauded the killings.
“Great work #hyderabadpolice ..we salute u,” badminton star Saina Nehwal wrote on Twitter.
On Twitter, #encounter was the top-trending hashtag in India and No. 4 worldwide.
In Uttar Pradesh state, where a rape victim was set ablaze on Thursday while she was on her way to court, opposition politician Mayawati said the police there should take “inspiration” from what happened in Hyderabad.
“Culprits should be punished, and if they are not punished then whatever happened in Hyderabad should happen,” the victim’s brother said in hospital.
She was on life support, hospital authorities said, news that could further inflame passions in a country where public anger over crimes against women has grown in recent weeks.
Indian police registered more than 32,500 cases of rape in 2017, according to the most recent government data. But courts completed only about 18,300 cases related to rape that year, leaving more than 127,800 cases pending at the end of 2017.
But some people said the lack of progress in the courts did not mean the police had a free hand to dispense justice.
“We now have to trust that a police force that managed to let unarmed suspects escape their custody, and needed to shoot them dead because they could not catch them alive, is somehow competent enough to have identified and arrested the real culprits?,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters from London.
Additional reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal, Zeba Siddiqui and Nidhi Verma in New Delhi, Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Bengaluru, Shilpa Jamkhandikar and Euan Rocha in Mumbai; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Frances Kerry