Indian police on Friday shot dead four gang-rape and murder suspects, prompting celebrations but also accusations that they were extrajudicial executions.
The men, who had been in custody for a week over the latest rape case to shock India, were shot in the early hours during a re-enactment of the crime organised by police in Shadnagar, outside the southern city of Hyderabad.
“The police brought the accused to the crime spot as part of the investigation. The accused then started attacking the police with stones and sticks and then snatched the weapons and started firing,” police commissioner V.C. Sajjanar said.
“The police warned them and asked them to surrender but they continued to fire. Then we opened fire and they were killed in the encounter,” he told reporters at the scene, adding that the men had confessed to the crime during interrogation.
Television images showed the shoeless bodies of the suspects still lying in an open field on Friday afternoon, with guns in the hands of two of them.
The four men were accused of gang-raping and murdering a 27-year-old veterinary doctor before setting fire to her body underneath an isolated bridge late on November 27.
Like in the infamous 2012 rape and murder of a woman on a Delhi bus, the case sparked demonstrations and calls for swift and tough justice.
Shortly after their arrest hundreds of protesters also tried to storm the police station where they were held.
At one demonstration in Delhi, some women wielded swords while one lawmaker called for the men to be “lynched” and another for rapists to be castrated.
– Showered in petals –
Police are often accused of using extrajudicial killings to bypass the legal process to cover-up botched investigations or to pacify public anger.
A huge backlog of cases in the slow Indian criminal justice means that many rape victims wait years for justice.
Several hundred people flocked to the scene of the men’s deaths on Friday, setting off firecrackers to celebrate and showering police with flower petals and hoisting them on their shoulders.
“I am happy the four accused have been killed in an encounter. This incident will set an example. I thank the police and media for their support,” the victim’s sister told a local television station.
Women distributed sweets and tied Hindu ritual threads on the wrists of policemen to thank them.
Further celebrations were held elsewhere in the country, including in the western state of Gujarat.
Many social media users, including politicians and celebrities, hailed police.
“Great work #hyderabadpolice ..we salute u,” top badminton player Saina Nehwal tweeted.
“Let all know this is the country where good will always prevail over evil,” a former minister and current MP from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party wrote on Twitter.
– ‘State murders’ –
But lawyer and activist Vrinda Grover told AFP the killings were “absolutely unacceptable”.
“Instead of investigation and prosecution the state is committing murders to distract the public and avoid accountability,” she said.
India’s former federal minister for women and child developement, Maneka Gandhi termed the incident “dangerous”.
“They would have anyway got hanging for their heinous crime, but you can’t just pick up guns and kill people because you want to. Because law is tardy, you can’t kill people,” Gandhi told reporters.
“To appease public rage over state failures against sexual assault, Indian authorities commit another violation,” tweeted Meenakshi Ganguly from Human Rights Watch.
Amnesty International India said the “alleged extrajudicial execution” raised disturbing questions and called for an independent investigation.
“In a modern and rights-respecting society, using extrajudicial executions to offer justice to victims of rape is not only unconstitutional but circumvents the Indian legal system and sets a grossly wrong precedent,” it said in a statement.