Police shot dead four men yesterday who were suspected of raping and killing a 27-year-old veterinarian near Hyderabad city, an action applauded by her family and many citizens outraged over sexual violence against women.
However, some rights groups and politicians criticised the killings, saying they were concerned the judicial process had been sidestepped.
The men had been in police custody and were shot dead near the scene of last week’s crime after they snatched weapons from two of the 10 policemen accompanying them, said police commissioner V C Sajjanar.
Thousands have protested in several cities over the past week following the veterinarian’s death, the latest in a series of horrific cases of sexual assault in the country.
The woman had left home for an appointment on her scooter and later called her sister to say she had a flat tyre. She said a lorry driver had offered to help and that she was waiting near a toll plaza.
Police said she was abducted, raped and asphyxiated and her body was then set alight on the outskirts of Hyderabad.
Four men were arrested.
Sajjanar, the police officer, said the men — two truck drivers and two truck cleaners, aged between 20 and 26 years — had been taken to the spot to help recover the victim’s mobile phone and other personal belongings yesterday morning.
“As the party approached this area today (during the) early hours, all the four accused got together. They started attacking the police party with stones, sticks and other materials,” he told reporters near the site of the shootings.
The men, who were not handcuffed, then snatched weapons away from the police and started firing at them, but were killed after the police retaliated.
He did not say how the accused were able to overpower their escorts. “Law has done its duty, that’s all I can say,” Sajjanar said.
The National Human Rights Commission, a government-funded watchdog, said it had ordered an investigation. “Death of four persons in alleged encounter with the police personnel when they were in their custody, is a matter of concern for the commission,” it said in a statement.
The police have frequently been accused of extra-judicial killings, called “encounters”, especially in gangland wars in Mumbai and in Punjab and Kashmir.
Police officers involved in such killings were called “encounter specialists” and were the subject of several movies. The victim’s family welcomed the news the alleged perpetrators had been killed.
“I express my gratitude towards the police and government for this. My daughter’s soul must be at peace now,” her father was quoted as saying. A Reuters reporter saw the four men’s bodies lying in an open field, all of them face up and barefoot, with their clothes stained with blood, surrounded by policemen.
A large crowd gathered at the site and threw flower petals at police vans in support of the action.
Some shouted “Long live police”, while others hoisted police officials onto their shoulders and burst firecrackers.
There was no immediate word from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government on the incident, but Maneka Gandhi, a lawmaker from the Bharatiya Janata Party, said the police appeared to have over-reached.
“You can’t take the law in your own hands. The courts would’ve ordered them (the accused) to be hanged anyway. If you’re going to shoot them with guns before due process is followed, then what’s the point of having courts, police and law?” she said.
Tough laws were enacted after the 2012 gang rape and murder of a woman in a bus in New Delhi that led to an outpouring of anger across the country, but crimes against women have continued unabated.
Fast track courts have been set up but cases have moved slowly, for lack of witnesses and the inability of many families to go through the long legal process.
Some victims and their families have ended up being attacked for pursuing cases against powerful men, often local politicians.
Many citizens applauded the killings.
“Great work .hyderabadpolice..we salute u,” badminton star Saina Nehwal wrote on Twitter.
On Twitter, #encounter was the top-trending hashtag in India and No 4 worldwide.
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