The head of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh ordered an investigation Friday into the police shootings of eight escaped prisoners in what activists described as extrajudicial killings.
After members of his government spent days attempting to justify the deaths, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan bowed to intensifying pressure and said a retired judge would lead an inquiry into the jailbreak and the deaths.
Eight inmates fled a prison Monday in the central city of Bhopal and were shot dead a few hours later in what police described as an hour-long gun battle. The police said the fugitives fired first and that three officers were injured with a “sharp instrument” during a clash.
But video and audio recordings obtained by news media appeared to contradict that version of events.
Videos reportedly taken by onlookers showed the prisoners standing on a hilltop with raised hands, apparently trying to surrender.
“Wait, they are trying to talk to us,” one policeman is heard saying, before another fires at the group. The prisoners were some distance away, raising questions about how they could have wounded the cops.
In another video, a policeman is seen shooting at a body on the ground while another officer says, “He is alive – kill him.”
Then, on Thursday, an online news outlet, Catch News, published audio recordings from the state police control room that appeared to show commanders directing officers to kill the men.
“Finish everyone,” one is heard saying.
Witnesses added to the doubts about the police’s story. The head of Eint Khedi village outside Bhopal, where the killings took place, said the fugitives did not have weapons and only threw stones at the police. The chief of the state’s anti-terrorism squad also told a news channel the men were unarmed.
After the incident, Chouhan immediately fired five jail officials and asked federal investigators to probe the jailbreak — but not the killings.
His change of course reflected growing calls to account for the deaths of the eight men, who were awaiting trial on a range of terrorism charges.
The controversy was stoked by brusque initial responses by several Indian officials to the killings. Don’t question the authorities, they said.
“We should stop this habit of raising doubts and questioning the authorities and the police,” said Kiren Rijiju, the junior minister for home affairs. “This is not a good culture.”
“We are observing in India that people have developed this habit of raising unnecessary questions,” he said. “Merely on the basis of some videos, you cannot raise alarm bells.”
The state’s home minister, Bhupinder Singh, claimed the escapees were planning a “huge terror attack.” Even Sanjeev Shami, the anti-terrorism chief who acknowledged the prisoners were unarmed, defended the killings because they “were dreaded criminals.”
The deaths are the latest in a long history of what Indians euphemistically refer to as “encounters,” but which activists call extrajudicial killings, in which criminal suspects are bumped off in murky circumstances.
The Asian Center for Human Rights said 10,900 Indians died in extrajudicial killings between 2004 and 2014.
Manisha Sethi of the Jamia Teachers Solidarity Assn., a Delhi-based human rights group, said Muslims and members of disadvantaged tribal groups are particularly vulnerable to such killings because authorities often brand them as militants.
Several top politicians said the Bhopal shootings were justified because the prisoners were associated with the Students Islamic Movement of India, or SIMI, a banned militant group that came to prominence for organizing communal protests against the demolition of a revered mosque by Hindu radical groups.
India first outlawed the group in 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States and has extended the ban multiple times.
“The point of the Bhopal case is that unless you associate them with SIMI, the charges against them are robbery and sedition, which are not proven,” Sethi said. “But the state and a section of the media are trying to legitimize their killing by referring to them as terrorists.”
Activists say the killings allow authorities to eliminate suspects without waiting for India’s slow-moving judicial system to run its course. “Encounter” specialists in law enforcement often gain promotions and are glorified in Bollywood movies as heroes.
Politicians also are accused of using “encounter” specialists to settle personal scores.
Activists hope the Bhopal probe will explore how the inmates were able to flee the high-security prison, whose closed-circuit cameras were not working at the time of their escape.
A post-mortem report found multiple bullet wounds in the bodies, three of which were shot in the back.
But the history of official investigations in such cases is not encouraging.
When Sethi filed a request under India’s Right to Information Act for details about “encounter” cases in the capital, New Delhi, she found there had only been two or three judicial investigations and hardly any police inquiries since 1995.
Instead, she said, police reports filed after such killings are often made against the person who was killed.
“Dead men do not talk,” she said.
Parth M.N. is a special correspondent. Staff writer Shashank Bengali contributed to this report.