People’s Union for Civil Liberties strongly condemns the registration of a FIR by the Andhra Pradesh (AP) Forest Department against a team of human rights activists drawn from national level human rights organisations which visited, on April 11, 2015, the site of the encounter in Chandragiri Mandal in Chittoor district, AP in which the police shot dead 20 wood cutters. The Fact Finding Team included human rights activists from Civil Liberties Committee – AP, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), Human Rights Forum (HRF), CPDR and other organisations.
It is learnt that the forest department officials booked criminal cases under AP Forest Act, 1957 against 12 human rights activist for visiting the site of the alleged encounter situated inside Reserved Forests without permission. In fact, when the Fact Finding Team members met the DFO of the area, he reportedly threatened to launch the prosecution against them as a means of intimidating them.
PUCL considers the criminal prosecution as an act meant to terrorise and intimidate the Fact Finding Team of human rights organisations from exposing to the world the utter lies and falsehoods of the AP police and forest department’s regarding the encounter which allegedly took place on April 8, 2015 between 530 to 600 am . The action of registration of a criminal case against the team of human rights activists has to be seen as a hostile and bullying action to silence citizens from challenging the government about the total abuse of power leading to shooting to death of the wood cutters.
The sinister and motivated nature of the FIR registration has to be seen in the context of the fact that it includes Chikula Chandrasekhar, General Secretary, Civil Liberties Committee-AP, who had filed the PIL against the AP Government before the AP High Court seeking judicial enquiry and prosecution and arrest of police officials concerned. It is thus clearly an act to intimidate the PIL Petitioner from pursuing the PIL in which the High Court has expressed its mind about the need to register a FIR including offence of murder in encounter deaths, independent investigation and implementation of guidelines in encounter cases issued by the Supreme COur tin the case of PUCL vs State of Maharashtra.
Such a hostile action could not be the action of local police and forest department alone but should be considered to reflect the official policy line of the AP Government which does not want the truth of the encounters to be exposed.
PUCL would like to highlight that the human rights team was visiting the encounter site only for the purpose of gathering information about the actual location and understand the context of the firing so as to check the veracity of the police story that they fired in self-defence against hundreds of wood cutters who rained stones, sticks, sickles and arrows against them. The Fact Finding Team was visiting the area also because of the substantial allegation that the 20 persons were killed elsewhere and their bodies thrown at the site shown to be the encounter site. A site visit therefore was vital for the Fact Finding Team to come to an independent, unbiased and factual assessment as to whether there was truth to the stand of the AP Government about the encounter.
PUCL stresses that visits of Fact Finding Teams and their reports are well-recognised by human rights bodies of the United Nations, the National Human Rights Commission and even courts in India as an accepted and legitimate way of bringing to the light of public scrutiny incidents of human rights violations committed by state forces.
Thus the Fact Finding Team’s visit to the site of encounter, situated in Reserved Forest area, will have to be seen as a legitimate part of human rights groups’ activities which is distinct and different from other instances of entering into reserved forest areas without permission. Thus while technically entering into reserved forest areas may be a violation in law, the invocation of the law in the present circumstance is only indicative of the state using its coercive powers to silence, intimidate and stifle public exposure of its complicity in the cold blooded massacre of 20 wood cutters and passing it off as an encounter. PUCL calls upon all democratic minded citizens and human rights concerned persons to raise their voice demanding respect for rule of law and against state resorting to encounters as a way of terrorising civil society.
*National General Secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties