Tension prevailed as the next of kin of two of the 20 woodcutters alleged to be red sanders smugglers gunned down in Andhra Pradesh on Thursday staged protests in Tiruvannamalai district by placing the bodies on the road seeking justice as protests over the killings continued for the third day across the state.
While 12 woodcutters hail from Tiruvanamalai district, seven are from Dharmapuri and one from Salem. Red sanders or red sandalwood is a protected species of tree grown in at least four districts of Andhra Pradesh. The trees are in short supply and fetch thousands of dollars on the international black market.
Demand is high in countries such as China and Japan, where the wood is used to make furniture, musical instruments and even toys.
Tension gripped Padavedu in Tiruvannamalai district when relatives of slain Sasikumar and Murugan staged protests by placing the bodies on road. They sought a probe and enhanced solatium.
A scuffle broke out between the police and the relatives as they refused to take away the bodies for cremation. District authorities were trying to persuade them to remove the bodies.
A petition has also been filed in the Madras high court seeking a fresh post-mortem for one of those killed, details of which are yet to emerge. Protests continued in several parts of the state including Arakkonam, Hosur and Chennai against the Andhra Pradesh police operations on Tuesday.
A group of advocates of Madras high court burnt effigies of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu and said he should also be included as one of the main accused, besides demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into the incident.
A Tamil outfit ransacked a retail chain store in Chennai, the founder chairman of which is Naidu. The police have detained two in connection with the incident.
Allegations came thick and fast that Andhra Pradesh police pulled out seven out of a bus and then killed them at point blank range, later dubbing it as ‘encounter’.
"Seven poor labourers were pulled out of a bus on TN-AP border on Monday and they were among those who were later gunned down," said Tamil rights activist and coordinator of May 17 Movement Thirumurugan Gandhi.
"These are brutal murders," he said adding "justice is what we need for those killed and their families." Raja Babu, a native of Kannamangalam in Tiruvannamalai District in Tamil Nadu too alleged that seven men from his village were taken into custody and then shot dead by the Andhra Pradesh police while one managed to escape.
Of the eight woodcutters on the bus, seven were allegedly taken away by the AP police, and they did not notice the eighth person, an elderly man seated in another row of seats along with a woman, Babu claimed.
The Andhra Pradesh government has dismissed the charge of a fake encounter, contending that policet had fired in self-defence.
"It was an incident where the police had to open fire in self-defence because they were terribly outnumbered," the government's Communication Advisor, Parakala Prabhakar, had said on Wednesday.
"Wooden logs found at the encounter site has markings and its features suggest that they were felled some time ago. Burn marks and nature of injuries on the bodies of victims also corroborate that these were planned killings," Thirumurugan said.
Citing media reports, he said that in the past four years, a number of Tamil wood-cutters had systematically been ‘eliminated’ in Andhra Pradesh.
“Only ignorant and poor Tamil wood-cutters are targeted," he alleged.
He referred to an interview of a top Chittoor police official last year to an English daily to state that there could be a nexus between politicians and smugglers.
The police official, in his interview, had said that “most red sanders smugglers have political connections.”
lain woodcutters place bodies on road, protest