The Crime-Branch CID on Wednesday slapped murder charges on six people, including two sub-inspectors, and arrested one of them as it took over the probe into the alleged custodial torture leading to the death of a father-son duo in this southern district, amid intense judicial scrutiny and nation-wide outrage.
Within hours of taking over the probe on the directions of the Madras high court, the specialised investigating agency altered the FIRs to include murder charges against SIs Raghu Ganesh and Balakrishnan, as many constables and members of Friends of Police (volunteers) of the Sathankulam police station, CB-CID sources said.
It arrested Raghu Ganesh late on Wednesday night shortly after state Law Minister Law Minister C Ve Shanmugam assured that the government would ensure "highest punishment" to those responsible for the deaths of P Jeyaraj and his son Bennicks, who were allegedly thrashed at the police station recently.
The murder charges capped dramatic developments both in the court and outside where a woman head constable witness to the happenings told a Magisterial probe that the two traders were thrashed an entire night by the other police personnel at Sathankulam station where they were detained over alleged lockdown violations late last month.
The death of the duo on June 23, which saw an outpouring of anger with people from various walks of life condemning the "police brutality", also drew the attention of the National Human Rights Commission as it issued notices to the state police chief and Tuticorin Superintendent of Police, seeking a detailed report.
Jeyaraj and Bennicks, arrested for "violating" lockdown norms over the business hours of their cell phone shop, died at a hospital in Kovilpatti on June 23 while in judicial custody with the relatives alleging they were tortured at the Sathankulam police station by the personnel days earlier.
The probe into the case has since been transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation by the state government, though the court ordered the CB-CID to take over it till the central agency handled it, fearing evidence may disappear.
Top Tamil film star Rajinikanth described the deaths as "brutal killing," and slammed the alleged inappropriate behaviour of some policemen with a Judicial Magistrate at the Sathankulam police station when he conducted an enquiry.
Incidentally, the Sathankulam police station is now under ther revenue department control, seen as an "unprecedented" development so far in the country, after the high court issued an order after the conduct of the local police personnel came under intense scrutiny.
Legal experts differed on the reasons with one opining that the court could have given such a direction apprehending possible destruction of evidence by police.
Another view was that revenue department is the authorised organ of the government to take possession of buildings, as warranted in specific cases such as this.
An advocate, who did not want to be named, said the move could have been prompted by the fact that the department also enjoys some Executive powers such as issuing summons.
In her statement to the Judicial Magistrate earlier, head constable Revathy said the personnel at the Sathankulam police station thrashed Jeyaraj and his son the whole night there and lathis used for allegedly assaulting them and a table carried blood stains.
The two persons were "beaten up the entire night by police personnel there (Sathankulam PS) using lathis... due to this there were blood stains on the lathis and a table and she said they (stains) should be collected immediately as they (policemen) could try to erase them," the report of the magistrate said.
Mentioning her statement in a four-page report to the Madras high court Madurai Bench, the JM probing the deaths said the constable feared receiving threat if she revealed the facts.
He further submitted that Revathy did not sign on her statement immediately and did so after a long time upon being assured of her safety. Her statement was "recorded carefully".
The Madras high court, which has taken up the matter of the death of the duo, had on Tuesday transferred the probe to the CB-CID under DSP Anil Kumar.
Officials led by Kumar conducted enquiries with the family members of the deceased on Wednesday, besides in the locality where the duo ran their cellphone shop.
CB-CID sleuths also visited the Sathankulam police station.
The FIRs filed earlier were altered to include murder charges under Indian Penal Code section 302 against the four police personnel and the two friends of police.
Meanwhile, the NHRC said it has sought a report from the police officers, which has to include reports of inquest, post-mortem, medical treatment record, magisterial inquiry and health screening report of both victims, within 6 weeks.
Law Minister Shanmugam said the state government was "determined that the guilty should be punished."
"...(the government will) ensure the highest punishment for those responsible for the death of the father and the son," he said in a statement.
"We are aware of the sufferings of a family that has lost a father, son, husband," he added.
This was not a usual lock-up death and since allegations have been made against a number of persons like police personnel, jail authorities and government doctor, "there is a responsibility before the Tamil Nadu government to find answers and punish the culprits," he added.
He also slammed the opposition DMK and its chief MK Stalin, charging them with trying to politicising the matter.
Meanwhile, actor Rajinikanth, who had donned the role of policeman in several films including his latest 'Durbar', described as "brutal killing" the death of the two.
"#sathyama vidave koodathu (this should not be spared at any cost,)," the actor, who had days ago spoken to Jeyaraj's wife, said about the episode in a tweet, with the hashtag in Tamil trending on Twitter minutes after he put up the post with an image of him, striking a visibly angry pose.
"While the entire humanity has opposed the brutal killing of the father and son by torture, I was shocked at the way some policemen behaved and spoke in front of the (judicial) magistrate. All those involved should get appropriate punishment. This should not be spared," he said.
After detention in the police station, the father and son were produced before a magistrate and sent to judicial remand. After they complained of uneasiness in the jail, they were taken to the hospital where both died.