Before dawn Friday, police transported four suspects to the scene of a crime that has outraged their nation: A roadside in southern India, where the men are accused of gang-raping a woman, suffocating her and setting her body on fire.
The woman’s Nov. 27 murder sparked protests and candlelight vigils across India. Within 48 hours, police had arrested the four, their brutality allegedly caught on CCTV cameras.
Police said they needed to question the suspects at the crime scene — before daybreak — to have them retrace their steps and collect more evidence.
But by sunrise, all four suspects had been shot dead by police. They had yet to be charged.
“Law has done its duty,” the top police official on the case, V.C. Sajjanar, told reporters at a news conference.
Hundreds of revelers gathered where the rape had occurred — on the outskirts of the southern city of Hyderabad — hoisting police officers on their shoulders above the crowd and showering them with rose petals.
“Long live police!” they chanted. The victim’s father was quoted as saying his daughter’s soul is now at peace.
But human rights activists and some politicians decried Friday’s killings as an extrajudicial execution that amounts to mob justice.
“If you’re going to kill the accused before any due process of law has been followed, then what’s the point of having courts, law and police?” Maneka Gandhi, a lawmaker from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) told reporters outside parliament in New Delhi.
The local branch of the BJP in Telangana, where Hyderabad is the state capital, issued a statement saying: “India is not a banana republic and is bound by legal and constitutional framework.”
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both called for an investigation.
“We still don’t know whether the actual perpetrators have been caught, because we do not know whether police that are incompetent enough to let suspects escape should be trusted to have solved the case,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told NPR.
A police claim of self-defense
Sajjanar said the suspects were taken back to the crime scene so that they could lead police to where they had buried the victim’s cell phone and other personal items. He said the alleged rapists had not been handcuffed, and managed to overpower ten police officers.
The suspects threw stones at police, injuring two officers, Sajjanar said. After two of the suspects snatched officers’ firearms, all four were shot dead in self-defense, he said.
Sajjanar was involved in a similar case in Dec. 2008, Indian media reported, in which three suspects were killed by police after being arrested for allegedly throwing acid on two female engineering students in another town near Hyderabad.
After that incident, he reportedly earned the nickname “the encounter cop.” (In India, the word “encounter” connotes any suspicious killing of a suspect in police custody.)
Security forces across India have been accused over the years of carrying out extrajudicial killings. In 2017, India’s Supreme Court ordered an inquiry into more than 1,500 deaths in the country’s northeast, where police officers had allegedly staged fake attacks in order to kill criminals in their custody.
Police attribute most deaths while in custody to suicide or natural causes but, as Human Rights Watch noted in a 2016 report, family members in many cases allege torture by the police.
Demands for swift justice
The name of the 27-year-old rape victim in Hyderabad is not being reported, in accordance with Indian law to protect the identity of those believed to be victims of sexual violence.
Police say she phoned her sister on the day of her death to say her motor scooter had a flat tire, but that a friendly truck driver was helping her. Authorities allege four men stealthily deflated her tire, then posed as good Samaritans before raping and murdering her. It’s unclear whether she was still alive when they doused her body with fuel and set it aflame.
In 2012, a physiotherapy student was gang-raped on a New Delhi bus, garnering widespread protests and prompting authorities to increase prison terms for convicted rapists. Four men have been convicted in that case, and sentenced to death. One has since died by suicide in prison.
Swati Maliwal, chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women, says she’s frustrated that the Delhi convicts have not yet been executed. In other cases, trials are often delayed for years and justice is difficult to attain.
She said that while she did not condone extrajudicial killings, she understood why police in Hyderabad might have taken matters into their own hands.
“There is a huge possibility that the police felt that if they let these people just go through the court process, they will never get the punishment that they deserve,” Maliwal told NPR by phone from a protest camp in New Delhi, where she was on the fourth day of a hunger strike to raise awareness of sexual violence.
Last year, a survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked India as the most dangerous country in the world for women, because of sexual violence. In 2017, the most recent year for which data were available, there were more than 33,000 cases of rape reported in India, according to national crime statistics. By comparison, the FBI says about 100,000 rapes were reported that year in the United States, which has about a quarter of India’s population.
But many cases of sexual violence in India are believed to go unreported. Unlike the Hyderabad victim, who was an urban professional attacked by strangers, most victims are poor rural women and their attackers are often people they know.
Maliwal appealed to the Indian government to fast-track trials for rapists — and devote greater police resources to fighting sexual violence — in order to avoid mob justice.
“What kind of a country do we want? Do we want to go through proper processes and systems?” she asks. “Or do we want results like this?”
NPR producer Sushmita Pathak contributed to this report