Uproar in Tamil Nadu as father and son detained during lockdown die in police custody

Motorists ride past a deserted road in Chennai, on June 19, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

BANGALORE - Deaths of a father and son while in police custody in Santhakulam in the Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu have shocked many in the south Indian state.

Mr P. Jayaraj, 58, and his son Mr J. Bennix, 31, were detained by the police last Friday (June 19) for allegedly keeping their mobile phone store and wood carving shop open after 8pm, in defiance of lockdown norms imposed to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The police called Mr Jayaraj to the station and detained him. When his son went to inquire why they had taken his father, the police held Mr Bennix too.

The duo were detained at the sub-jail of Kovilpatti, 100km away, for two days, where relatives allege they were beaten brutally by the police.

Relatives and friends saw the two men when they were brought to the government hospital on June 20 morning for a general check-up before a magistrate approved an extension of their police custody.

"Their legs and hands were swollen, and Bennix was bleeding from the buttocks. (Jayaraj) had bad injuries in his knees. The police even asked for new lungis (sarongs) because the ones they wore were bloody," said Mr S. Rajaram, a lawyer and Mr Bennix's friend.

A police complaint alleges that Mr Bennix and Mr Jayaraj violated the lockdown, and picked a fight with and assaulted the police. It also says they "rolled on the ground and injured themselves."

On June 22 evening at the sub-jail, Mr Bennix complained of chest pains and was taken to the hospital, where he died soon after admission. Mr Jayaraj complained of a fever early the next morning and also died in the hospital.

The police claim that Mr Bennix had a history of heart ailments and Mr Jayaraj had a high fever before arrest. The family of the deceased accuse the police of sexual assault and custodial murder.

Angry traders in Santhakulam closed their shops on June 24 and staged protests demanding an inquiry against the police officials. Soon after, two sub-inspectors were suspended and 12 other policemen transferred.

The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court has demanded a judicial magistrate's inquiry report. Post-mortems were videographed on Thursday (June 25).

Mr Raja said over 20 eye-witnesses now await the magistrate's examination.

The deaths have sparked outrage across Tamil Nadu. Film director Karthik Subbaraj, actors Jayam Ravi and Jiiva, and singer Suchitra tweeted, demanding urgent action against the police officials.

Ms Suchitra said: "This case cannot close unless and until we get the same justice George Floyd's murderers did."

Chief Minister E. Palaniswami announced a donation of 4 million rupees (S$73,659) to the family and a government job for a family member. Mr Jayaraj is survived by his wife and three daughters.

Data from India's National Human Rights Commission show nearly 1,400 people died in police custody in the last decade. A 2016 Human Rights Watch report said that nearly 600 people died in police custody between 2010 and 2015, but no police official was ever convicted.

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