The Madras High Court has directed the Judicial Magistrate, Kovilpatti, to conduct an inquiry into the alleged custodial deaths of P Jayaraj and his son J Bennicks in the Thootukudi District of Tamil Nadu, India Legal Live reported.
On June 19 an FIR was filed against Jayaraj and Bennicks at the Sathanukulam Police Station for allegedly violating lockdown restrictions and for misbehaving with police on duty. Both, father and son, were remanded to judicial custody on June 20 at Sub Jail, Kovilpatti, where they breathed their last. On June 24, the bench comprising Justices PN Prakash and P Pugalendhi had taken suo motu cognisance of the case of alleged police brutalities leading to the deaths of Jayaraj and his son.
In wake of the matter, the bench directed the Judicial Magistrate to:
1. Go to Sathankulam for conducting the enquiry, so that the witnesses will be in a position to appear before him and their statements can be recorded.
2. Visit the family members of the deceased for the purpose of recording the statements of the womenfolk
3. Conduct local inspection, visit the Sathankulam Police Station and take photocopies of all the records, including the General Station Diary
4. Take a photocopy of the case diary and the original case diary shall be handed over to the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Tuticorin, for safe custody.
5. Visit the place of occurrence for better appreciation of the facts, take videographs of the place of occurrence wherever he finds it necessary.
6. Collect the CCTV footage wherever they are available and have them preserved.
The Madras HC also appealed to the family members of the deceased, local Bar, fourth estate, public & political parties and NGOs to provide a congenial atmosphere for the Magistrate to conduct the enquiry so that ultimately justice is done to the parties.
The Madras HC order may be read below.
What happened in Tuticorin
On June 19, P Jayaraj and his son J Bennicks were picked up by the Tamil Nadu Police for questioning for allegedly violating lockdown rules. The police said that the duo had kept their shop open beyond permissible hours on June 19. Various media reports say that the shop was only open for 15 minutes beyond the permissible time. The Tamil Nadu police then filed an FIR against the two on the same day, India Today reported.
The Sathankulam police approached the magistrate B Saravanan to grant them permission to take Jayaraj and Bennicks into remand. The magistrate, allegedly, gave the remand order without seeing the father-son duo. Under Section 167 CrPC, the accused have to be physically produced before a Magistrate to authorize detention. However, other reports say that on June 20, the father and son were taken to the hospital before they were brought to the Magistrate for remand.
It was reported that on Monday, June 22, Bennicks fell ill and was moved to the Kovilpatti General Hospital, where he passed away. A day later, on Tuesday, his father too passed away. It was alleged that both, father and son, were tortured in police custody, which led to their deaths. A report by The Federal also said that Jayaraj and Bennicks were allegedly sodomised in police custody. The publication reported a friend of Bennicks’ as saying, “Between 7 am and 12 pm on June 20, the father and son had changed at least seven lungies (waistcloth) each as they had become wet due to blood oozing from their rectums.” The friend who was present at the police station also told The Federal that for three hours, they only heard screams and cries from the father and son.
Prior directions by the Madras HC
On June 24, the Madras HC had directed Tuticorin Superintendent of Police (SP) Arun Balagopalan to file a status report and submit the post-mortem video to the court on June 26, reported TNIE. The bench which took up the case suo motu through video conferencing was informed by Inspector General (South Zone) KP Shanmuga Rajeswaran that the two sub-inspectors – Balakrishnan and Raghuganesh (Ragu Ganesh) who were allegedly involved in the incided had been suspended and that Inspector Sridhar had been removed from the police station and placed on the waiting list. The judges were also told that departmental proceedings had been initiated against two constables – Muthuraj and Murugan. While the status report submitted by the SP on June 26 had said that Sathanukulam had returned to normalcy, the Additional Advocate General K Chellapandian had informed the postmortem report couldn’t be submitted due to lockdown restrictions. The case was adjourned for hearing on June 30, TNIE said.
The June 24 directions by the Madras HC may be read below.
State government response
TNIE reported that in a joint statement, CM Edappadi K Palaniswami and Deputy CM said, “The party will not tolerate such incidents. The family has lost its father and son. We convey our deepest condolences to the family.”
As compensation for the family’s loss, Information and Publicity Minister Kadambur C Raju handed over a cheque of Rs. 20 lakhs to the family of Jayaraj and Bennicks on behalf of the state government. Thoothukudi MP Kanimozhi Karunanidhi also handed over a cheque of Rs 25 lakh on behalf of DMK, TNIE reported.
Kanimozhi also filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission over the matter of the alleged custodial deaths of Jayaraj and Bennicks.
Protests and call for action
The family of Jayaraj and Bennicks had first refused to receive their bodies insisting that an FIR be registered against the suspected police officers. However, after the Madras HC took suo motu action in the matter, the family changed their stand and received the bodies from the Tirunelveli Medical College Hospital on June 25, 2020.
The incident that sparked public outrage brought many people to the streets. Trade unions, political outfits and activists and the public at large condemned and protested against the police atrocities on the father and son. Social media too erupted in angst with people decrying the police’s action and demanding a fair inquiry into the incident.
— Siva_KS ❤️? (@Sivaji_sk) June 26, 2020
— Jaffu⟭⟬ ⁷ (@jaffx_) June 26, 2020
Police atrocities need to condemned in strongest terms and the murderous khakis need to severely punished. pic.twitter.com/fWV9mMDajK
— ராஜா திருத்துறைப்பூண்டி திருவாரூர் மாவட்டம் (@Rajattptvr) June 26, 2020
CPI (M) General Secretary too condemned the incident and asked the state government to take immediate action against the perpetrators.
This is unacceptable. The guilty must be booked immediately and political accountability must be fixed for such heinous crimes. This is a must to prevent a repeat of such barbaric acts. https://t.co/lNalzLnJYR
— Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) June 27, 2020
Abraham Mathai, founder of the Harmony Foundation and former VC of the Maharashtra State Minorities Commission issued a statement saying that the alleged custodial death of Jayaraj and Bennicks was worse than the death of George Floyd in the US.
He said, “It is known worldwide that the law enforcement are entrusted with the safety and security of the citizens of their respective nations. However the exact seems to be the opposite lately. The murder of George Flyod at the hands of a police officer in Minnesota last month which sparked of demonstrations globally caused us to doubt if those entrusted with our protection have been given the authority to kill. Does there exist a license to kill that is given to policemen the minute they wear the uniform?”
Expressing dismay over the lax action of the suspension of the police officers, he raised questions about the role of the police authorities. He said, “The brutal torture and murder of this father and son in Tamil Nadu in police custody is terribly shocking and demands for drastic and punitive action to be taken with immediate effect. Should it be inferred that our law enforcement officers are following the example of their counterparts in the United States?”
Live Law reported that according to P.S.Raman, Convener, the Tamil Nadu Senior Advocates Forum has passed a resolution demanding action against the guilty involved in the brutal deaths of Jayaraj and Bennix.
A part of the resolution reads, “We strongly condemn the incident which demonstrates lack of respect for the rule of law and leads to failing public confidence in administration in these trying times. We call for justice to be done by swift meaningful steps in accordance with law and bring the guilty to book. The Magistrate who remanded them to judicial custody, the duty doctor who issued the fitness certificate as well as the jailor have all wholly failed in their duties and contributed to the tragedy.”
The International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, ‘India: Annual Report on Torture 2019’ said 1,606 of the deaths happened in judicial custody and 125 in police custody. Police atrocities in India have exacerbated since the last year starting with the abrogation of Article 370 which saw police firing on protestors and detention and assaults on children, during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) protests where police assaulted students and protestors with brutal force, the violence in Delhi in February where police allegedly attacked minorities and during the lockdown where police exercised brutal force on citizens during the lockdown.
The alleged custodial deaths of Jayaraj and Bennicks are just another reminder of a system that needs fixing but has been ignored putting the lives of innocent citizens at stake.
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