Two new shooting incidents in India where suspects died under fire from the police shows once again the need for urgent reform.
During a police operation this week to combat sandalwood smuggling in Andhra Pradesh state, 20 loggers were killed. Police say they were forced to open fire in self-defense when smugglers, on being asked to surrender, instead retaliated by hurling stones and attacking policemen with sickles and other tools.
On the same day, five terrorism suspects in Telangana state were killed in custody as they were being transported from jail to Hyderabad for a court hearing. Police say that one of the suspects snatched a rifle and tried to shoot at the police escort, while other prisoners helped him by physically attacking policemen. But activists dispute this because the suspects were handcuffed at the time, and the five men should easily have been subdued by armed guards. Again, the police claim they acted in self-defense, but some fear this was a case of extrajudicial execution.
Both these violent incidents suggest that the police failed to respond according to Indian and international law. Human Rights Watch found that police in India are often not held accountable for abuses they commit, and has recommended several reforms including better training and working conditions for police officers. Security forces have the right to use lethal force when their lives or those of others are in imminent danger, but these latest shootings beg the question as to why armed police felt the need to use lethal force to overpower suspects.
India’s police have long been tainted by numerous credible allegations of abuse. Police and other security forces use torture to coerce confessions, or simply to punish suspects; use unnecessary force or live ammunition instead of trying to arrest suspects by using non-lethal weapons; and carry out extrajudicial executions of suspects instead of relying on evidence and properly protecting witnesses to ensure a conviction.
For their part, police argue that they do not have adequate means to do their jobs, and often face undue political pressure too. India’s police do of course need support to do their work properly. But they should also be held accountable when they themselves fail to abide by the law.