(New York) – Authorities in India’s Tamil Nadu state should conduct a prompt, impartial, and transparent investigation into the police shooting of protesters against a copper plant that left at least 12 dead and 80 injured, Human Rights Watch said today. Television news video footage shows two plainclothes men firing at protesters from atop a police van during a demonstration on May 22, 2018.
Since February, residents of the port city of Tuticorin have protested against the expansion of a copper smelting plant and demanded its closure because of environmental concerns. Previous protests have largely been peaceful. On May 22, protesters clashed with police after being prevented from marching to the offices of the local administration. Police said they were compelled to respond with live ammunition after demonstrators pelted police with stones, attacked a government building, and set vehicles on fire.
“The police have a duty during protests to maintain law and order, but lethal force can only be used if there is an imminent threat to life,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Tamil Nadu authorities need to carry out a prompt and credible investigation to determine if police used excessive force and hold those responsible to account.”
The Tamil Nadu government said that the police had to take action “under unavoidable circumstances” to bring the violence under control. Protests have continued, with one person reportedly killed by a rubber bullet and dozens injured on May 23. The government has ordered an internet shutdown for five days in three districts.
Following widespread condemnation of the killings, the state chief minister has ordered an inquiry and announced compensation of 10 lakh rupees (US$14,600) to each of the families of those who died.
Sterlite Copper, a business unit of Vedanta, a United Kingdom-based multinational mining and metals conglomerate, set up the copper smelting plant in 1996. Residents living in towns and villages nearby have long alleged that the plant had damaged their health, water, and environment.
In 2013, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board directed Sterlite to temporarily shut down its copper plant following allegations of a gas leak. Days later, India’s Supreme Court ordered the company to pay damages of 100 crore rupees ($15 million) for environmental rehabilitation measures.
In an official statement reported in the media, Sterlite Copper said: “It's with great sorrow and regret that we witnessed today’s incidents around the protest today at Tuticorin. The company has appealed to government and authorities to ensure safety of our employees, facilities, and surrounding communities. Sterlite Copper plant is non-operational as we await approval for the consent to operate.”
On May 23, the Madras High Court, in an interim order, stayed the expansion of Sterlite Copper’s industrial unit.
The Indian government should publicly order the police to abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The Basic Principles state that law enforcement officials shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “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.” The findings of the investigation should be public and result in appropriate disciplinary action or prosecution.
“It’s important that the Tamil Nadu authorities respond to protests in accordance with international law, but they should also be addressing concerns raised about health and environmental harms,” Ganguly said. “Protest organizers should take steps to deter supporters from engaging in violence, including attacks on law enforcement officers.”