HYDERABAD, India (AFP) - Police in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh were on Wednesday charged with the murder of 20 suspected red sandalwood smugglers, an official said.
The head of the anti-smuggling task force whose officers are accused of the crimes said they acted in self-defence after being attacked by men armed with axes, sticks and stones last week in the remote forest of Chittoor, which is notorious for sandalwood smuggling.
An initial case was filed with police based on a complaint by the wife of one of the victims, charging "unknown persons" in the force with murder and abduction.
"Her (victim's wife) complaint was that the anti-smuggling task force kidnapped and murdered her husband," Kranthi Chaitanya, a member of a civil rights group representing the victim's family, told AFP.
It was not immediately clear how many police officers were being charged with carrying out the attack.
Street protests and growing calls for an independent investigation erupted last week over the killings, with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) calling the incident a "serious violation of human rights".
Three witnesses told the NHRC on Monday that the men were hauled off a bus and shot while in custody.
Indian police have long been criticised for so-called "encounter killings", in which they shoot suspected criminals to sidestep court procedures and then claim the victim fired first.
The Supreme Court ruled last September that police killings must be investigated by an independent agency or a police unit not involved in the case.
The red sandalwood that grows in southern India is highly sought after in neighbouring China and other parts of East Asia, mainly for making furniture.
India banned its sale in 2000 after the tree was placed on an endangered list but illegal logging is rampant.
Activists accuse police of targeting low-level workers in the forests, while the heads of organised criminal networks behind the smuggling often go unpunished.