The manner in which 20 red sanders smugglers were killed by the Andhra Pradesh police on Tuesday morning has raised doubts on the authenticity of the police version.
Political parties and human rights activists of Tamil Nadu, from where most of the alleged smugglers of red sanders wood were shot dead, have claimed that the killings were "staged" and "fake". They also said that the victims were tribal woodcutters.
The encounter between the Andhra Police and about 100 smugglers happened in the Seshachalam forest in Chittoor district. The encounter was the result of an operation that began on Monday by the newly-formed Red-sanders Anti-Smuggling Taskforce that spotted footprints. The taskforce moved in two different directions - Eethagunta and Cheekateegalakona on Tuesday morning.
When they found that about 100 woodcutters were felling trees and carrying logs, they asked them to surrender. But the woodcutters didn't and instead, threw stones and sickles at the taskforce, forcing the force to fire at them, resulting in the death of 20 of the woodcutters.
Surprisingly, none of the taskforce men was injured, which was attributed to their training.
"Nobody is seriously hurt from our side. Their superior training saved their lives," Hindustan Times quoted Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling Task Force DIG Kantha Rao as saying.
But the manner in which the deceased were killed has raised suspicions. Seven of the 20 men were either shot in the face or the back of their neck, according to a report in The Indian Express.
Some even had burn injuries and their skin was peeling off; the police attributed it to "summer heat".
Most of the woodcutters were killed even before the encounter?
The HT report said that most of the dead bodies had decomposed, suggesting they were killed even before the Tuesday encounter.
Former Congress MP Chinta Mohan claimed that the men were taken captives and then shot them dead.
"Some of the bodies have marks on the wrists indicating that they were tied up and shot at close range. Most of the bodies have bullet wounds at the back of the neck. Either the police are Olympic level marksmen or plain murderers who shot their victims at close range," he said. He has demanded a judicial probe into the killings.
Also, some opposition parties and human rights activists allege the sandalwood logs were planted at the site of encounter as they had white colour on it along with code numbers. They said that this suggested the logs were transferred to the spot from a government stockyard.
There were also doubts on the way bodies were found at the encounter scene.
"Most of the bodies were found in a heap at the two sites. If there was an encounter, like the police alleged, wouldn't the men have scattered?" YSR Congress MLA Bhaskar Reddy said.
Weapons used by alleged smugglers were rusted?
Among several politicians who went to the site of the encounter on Tuesday was CPI leader P Harinath Reddy, who claimed that the weapons seized by police from the deceased men were rusted.
"They could not have used them to cut anything. It's a staged encounter. The government is targetting workers instead of going after contractors who employ them to smuggle wood," The Times of India quoted Reddy as saying.
Woodcutters often targeted by AP police?
The 2015 encounter in Chittoor revealed several data from the past suggesting that the woodcutters, who are tribals, have always been targetted in alleged fake encounters, while those running the smuggling rackets are set free.
The real smugglers who hire these woodcutters, mostly from Tamil Nadu, are sent to the Rajahmundry central prison from where they come out out on bail, while the woodcutters are arrested under charges of murder or attempt to murder.
In the red sanders wood smuggling case, the Nellore district jail in 2014 booked 440 woodcutters, of which 236 were booked for murder while the rest, on attempt to murder charges. Of these, 300 are still languishing in the prison for the last one year.
Besides the arrest, a total of 10 labourers were shot down by the Andhra Pradesh police at several locations last year.