(New York) – Indian authorities should promptly and impartially investigate the killing of eight prisoners who had escaped a high security prison in Madhya Pradesh state, Human Rights Watch said today. Contradictory reports and cell phone videos raise doubts over the police account that the prisoners were shot in an armed exchange after they resisted arrest.

Police officers and Special Task Force soldiers stand beside dead bodies of the suspected members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), who earlier today escaped the high security jail in Bhopal, and later got killed in an encounter at the Acharpura village on the outskirts of Bhopal, India, on October 31, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

Police reported that the eight prisoners escaped from prison on October 31, 2016, after killing a prison guard, were surrounded, and all fatally shot several hours later. Senior government officials in Madhya Pradesh ordered an inquiry into the prison break but refused an investigation into the killings.

“Arresting escaped prisoners is difficult and dangerous work, but the police don’t have a license to kill,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s important that the Indian authorities impartially investigate the prison break and death of a guard, but also the reasons why every single escaped prisoner was shot dead.”

The prisoners, all alleged members of the banned Students Islamic Movement in India, escaped the central prison in Bhopal city before dawn on October 31, according to police. They apparently fashioned keys out of toothbrushes and wood, and used bedsheets to scale the 30-foot walls. The Bhopal police chief initially said the prisoners were unarmed and had attacked the police with stones. He later changed his statement to say the prisoners were armed and killed in a shootout with the police. He said that three police officers were also injured “but with sharp weapons.” The state’s home minister, Bhupendra Singh, said that the men had “used jail utensils as weapons. [They] didn’t have guns, but the police had no choice but to kill them.”

Arresting escaped prisoners is difficult and dangerous work, but the police don’t have a license to kill.

Meenakshi Ganguly

South Asia Director

Television networks broadcast two unverified videos allegedly shot at the scene of the killings. One video shows five of the escaped men standing atop a hill waving and asking to speak with the police officers while a second video shows a police officer shooting at men lying on the ground. Autopsy reports show that all of the prisoners had gunshot injuries to the chest and abdomen, suggesting that the police did not attempt to capture the prisoners alive.

The head of the Madhya Pradesh Anti-Terrorism Squad was quoted as saying, “These men were dreaded criminals. If the police see the possibility that such men can escape, they can use maximum force… Even if the police are not being fired at, they can use such force.”

However, under the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, police should “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms.” Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials “shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.” Furthermore, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

The Basic Principles further provide that, “[i]n cases of death and serious injury or other grave consequences, a detailed report shall be sent promptly to the competent authorities.”

State authorities have rejected calls for an investigation into the killings, fueling concerns that any wrongdoing by the police would go unpunished, Human Rights Watch said.

Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which governs the state of Madhya Pradesh as well as the central government, dismissed calls for an investigation. While Singh said that “there was nothing to be investigated,” Ravi Shankar Prasad, central minister for law and justice, said that some “are showing more concern for them [the killed prisoners] than for the security of Indians and India as a nation.” The state’s chief minister also announced cash rewards for all policemen involved in the operation.

A central BJP leader said that questioning the actions of security forces “lowers their morale.” Kiren Rijiju, the central government minister of state for home affairs, said, “First of all we should stop this habit of raising doubt, questioning the authorities and the police. This is not a good culture.” He later clarified on social media that while the government must be questioned in a democracy, there was less concern for “martyrs” and “more for the terrorists.”

India’s opposition parties have called for a judicial inquiry into the matter. Both the national and the state human rights commissions have sought reports from the Madhya Pradesh state government on the killings. On November 2, police in the adjoining state of Uttar Pradesh beat up members of a local rights group, Rihai Manch, who were peacefully protesting the killing of the prisoners.

Police in India often flout central and state rules and procedures for arrest and detention, and every year they kill dozens of people in what they call “encounters,” claiming they acted in self-defense or to prevent flight from arrest. The National Human Rights Commission registered 206 encounter killings by the police from October 2015 to September 2016. The police are often responsible for staging these incidents, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch research has found that such unlawful killings are also a symptom of an overburdened criminal justice system that makes every trial a lengthy, drawn-out process that can sometimes last decades, leaving police frustrated. Police inability or unwillingness to uncover evidence to secure convictions often leads to the deliberate killing of suspects or the use of torture to obtain confessions.

Despite persistent police impunity for serious rights violations, India has no mechanisms for accountability or redress to systematically address police abuse. When asked to investigate alleged abuses by their colleagues, police are rarely willing to do so.

“Policing in India needs urgent reforms that have been pending for decades,” Ganguly said. “Creating a responsive, properly trained, rights-respecting police force is the best way to improve police morale – not by sweeping abuses under the rug.”