BANGALORE - A Supreme Court commission probing the killing of four people accused of a 2019 gang rape and murder found that the police deliberately shot all the accused even though they did not try to escape.
In a rare occurrence, the commission suggested on May 20 that the 10 policemen involved should be tried for murder. It called the shooting an extrajudicial killing, indicating that the act violated judicial procedure.
On Dec 6, 2019, the four accused were shot in Chatanpally, about 50km away from Hyderabad city. It was the same place where the body of a 25-year-old veterinarian was found burned after she was gang-raped and murdered.
The police from Hyderabad had taken the accused, two of them minors, to the scene of the crime. The accused were killed in crossfire when they tried to snatch the officers' guns and escape, the police said.
However, the commission's report said the claim was concocted.
"The accused were deliberately fired upon with an intent to cause their death," the report said.
The Supreme Court ordered the report to be shared with the Telangana High Court for further action. If the high court upholds the recommendation, the state government will have to prosecute the policemen.
When it happened in 2019, the shooting had divided opinions in India.
Soon after the news broke, people set off firecrackers at the site of the killing and garlanded the policemen involved. Many celebrities and citizens celebrated the shooting as "instant justice".
Hundreds of thousands of posts on Twitter supported the Hyderabad City Police.
The National Commission for Women's chief Rekha Sharma said she was happy that the accused were dead.
However, human rights activists, former police officials and politicians, such as Congress Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, criticised the killing as a lawless shortcut.
Former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju said then that the four accused were clearly unarmed and nothing justified their "cold-blooded killing".
"Fake 'encounters' completely sidestep and circumvent legal procedures, as it essentially means bumping someone off without a trial," he wrote in The Wire.
"Encounter" is a term used in South Asian countries for extrajudicial killings by police or armed forces, supposedly in self-defence when they encounter suspected criminals in shootout situations.
The Supreme Court had appointed a three-member commission in August 2019 to inquire into circumstances that led to the Hyderabad shooting.
Police killings are rampant in India, often done in custody, during interrogation and while transporting the accused from one location to another.
The public support for such murders before trial is a reflection of many citizens' lack of faith in timely, fair and affordable justice from the legal system.
India has the fourth-largest number of police killings in the world, after the Philippines (6,069), Brazil (5,804), and Venezuela (5,289).
The central government estimated that there were 655 deaths by police killings from 2017 to February 2022. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), however, said that in 2018 alone, at least 164 died in police encounters, and 1,570 in police custody.
But few policemen have been prosecuted.
While 158 cases were reported over alleged police killings in 2018, the NHRC deemed only 98 as encounters, and recommended disciplinary action in only 25. No personnel were prosecuted.
The national crime records find that only three complaints were reported against the police for deaths in 2020.
And although 20 cases were filed against policemen for human rights violation, charges were filed only against eight. No one has been convicted.
While police killings may seem like a swift resolution for victims' families, they could make justice even more elusive, say activists.
As the All India Progressive Women's Association, a network of feminists, said in a statement: "A system that offers murder as justice is a system that is telling women that we can't ensure the streets are safe, can't investigate crimes against women to ensure there is enough evidence to prove guilt, and can't protect rape survivors."
Police killings in India
Footnote: Latest available figures are until March 2018.
Source: National Human Rights Commission annual report, 2019