Relatives of foreigners allegedly murdered in India tourist haven write to PM Modi claiming police cover-up

Ms Fiona MacKeown, the mother of murdered schoolgirl Scarlett Keeling, leaving the Children's Court in Panaji, Goa, on Sept 23, 2016.
Ms Fiona MacKeown, the mother of murdered schoolgirl Scarlett Keeling, leaving the Children's Court in Panaji, Goa, on Sept 23, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

MUMBAI (AFP) - Relatives of 10 foreigners alleged to have been murdered in Goa, including British teenager Scarlett Keeling, have written to India's prime minister demanding an investigation into what they claim are cover-ups by police.

Minna Pirhonen - the mother of Finnish national Felix Dahl, who was found dead in the tourist state in January 2015 - said on Wednesday (May 31) that the families had couriered a letter to Narendra Modi's office last week.

In it, they demand an "unbiased and independent" probe by India's Supreme Court, the highest judicial body, into the Goa police's handling of the 10 deaths that all occurred since 2005.

"The quality of the work of the police in Goa should be investigated. Instead of investigating the murders and killings, the local police want to cover up the truth," read the letter, a copy of which has been seen by AFP.

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The open letter, dated May 21, claims the investigation "is needed to reveal the connections between the locals, the police in Goa, drug mafia and politicians and their involvement in the deaths of tourists and locals in Goa".

The deaths of several foreigners in Goa over the last decade or so, many in suspicious circumstances or from drug or alcohol abuse, have blighted the picturesque state's reputation as a tourist haven.

The most high profile was that of 15-year-old Keeling, whose bruised and semi-naked body was found in shallow water on a beach in 2008. Her case made international headlines and cast a spotlight on the seedy side of Goa.

It also drew attention to India's sluggish justice system. Last September, eight years after Keeling's death, two Indian men were cleared of raping and murdering her.

Police initially dismissed her death as an accidental drowning but opened a murder investigation after Keeling's mother, Fiona MacKeown, pushed for a second autopsy.

That further examination proved her daughter had drugs in her system and had been sexually assaulted, and revealed Keeling had suffered more than 50 injuries.

Pirhonen, whose22-year-old son Felix was found with skull wounds and whose death was attributed to an accidental fall by local police, signed the letter on behalf of relatives of nine other victims, including Keeling.

The others were Caitanya Holt, James Durkin, Kyle Arndt, Denyse Sweeney, Stephen Bennett, Martin Neighbour, Michael Harvey and Jonathan Burbank.

A right to information request revealed last month that 245 foreign tourists have died in Goa over the past 12 years, according to the Hindustan Times newspaper. Deaths are often classified as accidental - usually drowning - or natural.

In 2016, Goa police said Holt, an American, had died when he fell into a rice paddy and inhaled muddy water while being chased by locals.

In March, the body of 28-year-old Danielle McLaughlin, a dual British-Irish citizen, was discovered naked in a field. Police have charged 23-year-old Indian man Vikat Bhagat with her rape and murder.

Goa police and tourism officials were not immediately available for comment on the letter to Modi.