Tamil Nadu

Police terror

Print edition : July 17, 2020

Jayaraj (left) and Bennix. Photo: Source: Twitter

Mobile shop owners paying tributes to the father and son who died in custody, in Salem on June 24. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

The death of a father-son duo, following their detention over alleged violation of lockdown restrictions, in Thoothukudi district in Tamil Nadu smacks of police high-handedness.

The death of a father and son duo, traders in Sathankulam in Thoothukudi district, in judicial custody has left the Tamil Nadu government in quandary.

The Sathankulam police arrested timber trader P. Jayaraj (60) and his son J. Bennix (31) on the night of June 19 from their mobile phone shop for allegedly violating lockdown restrictions and registered cases under Sections 188, 269, 294(b), 353 and 506(ii) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Relatives of the dead men alleged that both had been beaten brutally at the police station. The bleeding duo was then taken to the Sathankulam Magistrate, who remanded them to judicial custody. Both were lodged at the Kovilpatti Sub Jail on June 20.

At about 7:30 p.m. on June 22, Bennix reportedly developed chest pain. He died two hours after being admitted to the Kovilpatti Government Hospital. Jayaraj too felt uneasy and breathless in the early hours of June 23 and died subsequently at the Kovilpatti hospital. The death of the father and son shocked the people of Sathankulam. The next day all of Thoothukudi district remained shut and traders across the State downed shutters in protest against what they called “police brutality”.

Relatives and friends of the duo alleged that the police had assaulted Jayaraj with a baton and Bennix tried to intervene on seeing that. Subsequently both were beaten up brutally with batons, they said. “They employed third-degree methods. Jayaraj was kicked in his chest while a baton was inserted into his anus, which made him bleed from the rectum,” said a family friend of Bennix.

Jayaraj’s daughter Percy demanded that the police personnel responsible for the death of her father and brother should be punished according to law. “Are they licensed to kill?” she asked. After initial reluctance to accept the bodies, the family accepted them after post-mortem on June 25 at the Palaymkottai Government Medical College Hospital.

Arun Balagopalan, Thoothukudi Superintendent of Police, said Bennix, who had heart ailments, developed breathing problems in the jail and got admitted to the Kovilpatti Government Hospital, where he died. He said Jayaraj was running high fever when he was arrested and was admitted to the isolation ward of the hospital where he died later.

Sub Inspectors Balakrishnan and Pauldurai, who allegedly arrested and assaulted the victims, have been placed under suspension and other personnel in Sathankulam police station have been transferred en masse. The family members, however, urged that the two officers must be charged with murder.

In fact, in April 2013 a person called Vaiyapuri near Thirukurungudi had approached the High Court against Balakrishnan, who was then working at the Thirukuunkudi police station, and two other policemen for assaulting him brutally in March 2013 for not carrying on him the documents for his two-wheeler. The victim, then 26, suffered injuries and was admitted to hospital for treatment. But the case, according to a source, was withdrawn.

Legal procedures not followed

The deaths have thrown open questions about legal procedures relating to remand and custodial torture. Though the law is clear on such issues, law-enforcers often violate them, said a senior lawyer at the Madras High Court. It is yet to be ascertained whether the Sathankulam Judicial Magistrate, while remanding the victims to judicial custody, had asked them personally of their physical condition or whether the mandated remand procedures such as a medical examination under the Criminal Procedure Code had been followed.

Another question the legal fraternity asks is whether the authorities at Kovilpatti Sub Jail carried out the medical examination of the duo while accepting their remand in custody. A reasonable explanation is also yet to be sought on why the police took nearly seven hours from the time of the arrest to produce the accused before the magistrate. And there is no proper explanation from the police on why they were taken to the Kovilpatti Sub Jail, some 80 kilometres from Sathankulam, instead of the nearby Srivaikundam prison. “Many violations of law have taken place in the brutal murders of the father and son,” said a senior advocate at the Madras High Court.

Henry Tiphagne, executive director of the Madurai-based rights organisation People’s Watch, while condemning the custodial torture and death at Sathankulam, wondered whether the magistrate had pursued the remand procedures diligently.

All the charges, except under Section 506 (ii) of the IPC, which were registered against the victims, he said, were punishable with the less than two years imprisonment. “Therefore there was no reason for the police to have produced the accused for remand and for the magistrate to remand them. These are contrary to the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court in Amesh Kumar vs State of Bihar 2015. The magistrate, our inquiry revealed, did not see them while they were kept in the van. Without applying his mind, he remanded them to custody. He should have seen the accused, which would have given the victims an opportunity to show their injury marks and narrate their ordeal. Even the mandated medical examination of the accused prior to remand was not undertaken,” he said.

The first information report (FIR) filed against the father and the son was bizarre. It said the duo “rolled on the ground and got injured” when the police asked them to close their mobile phone shop. The complaint preferred by head constable S. Murugan stated that he and constable Muthuraj, while checking for COVID-19 lockdown enforcement, saw the shop of the accused open beyond the permitted time. On asking them about this, he said, they resorted to abuse and “rolled on the ground, in which they sustained injuries”. “They threatened to kill us,” he claimed. They were then brought to the police station.

As the issue took a serious turn, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on June 25, on appeals from Jayaraj’s wife Selvarani and a lawyer A.P. Surya Prakasam, suo motu took up the case and issued a string of instructions to the government and the State Director General of Police (DGP) on how to pursue the case further and asked them to file a status report on the incident. The State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) also took up the case and directed the DGP of its investigation wing to inquire into the incident and file a detailed report within eight weeks. The Commission has also sought CCTV footage from the police station.

Incident condemned

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M.K. Stalin asked Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, who holds the Home portfolio, to take responsibility for the deaths. In a statement, he said the deaths of the father and son raised a lot of questions and demanded that those who were responsible for the deaths should be punished. Thoothukudi Member of Parliament Kanimozhi urged District Collector Sandeep Nanduri to take severe action against those who were responsible for the deaths. “Their families should be given adequate compensation,” she said. Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president K.S. Alagiri demanded an inquiry into the deaths by the Central Bureau of Investigation, while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) demanded severe punishment for the culprits.

The Chief Minister awarded a compensation of Rs.20 lakh to the victims’ family and said that further action would be taken based on the instructions given by the High Court, which is monitoring the case directly, and other agencies. He also advised the Tamil Nadu police to treat the public “softly and affectionately” while pursuing law and order related work.

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