Police in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh are under pressure to explain the killing of eight prisoners who escaped from a jail in Bhopal early on Monday, after footage emerged (warning: graphic content) that appeared to show at least one of the men being shot while already incapacitated.
The prisoners, all members of a banned Islamic group, cut the throat of a prison guard as they absconded. They were killed in a confrontation with police at about 11.30am on the outskirts of the city.
Bhopal’s chief police officer, Yogesh Choudhary, initially said the men had been unarmed but were resisting capture. “[They] attempted to attack the police with stones. We had to shoot them,” he told Agence France-Presse.
He later clarified that they had been armed with knives and makeshift pistols. He said: “We located the eight inmates, they fired on us and all of them were killed in the cross-firing.”
But this contradicted the account of the state’s home minister, Bhupendra Singh, who told NDTV the men had “used jail utensils as weapons. [They] didn’t have guns, but the police had no choice but to kill them.”
Also raising doubts were two videos that emerged on Monday evening, one purporting to show an officer firing at a prone prisoner, the other appearing to show some of the escapees with their hands raised, asking to speak with the officers.
The videos, which have been widely broadcast on Indian television and social media, cannot be independently verified.
Extra-judicial killings by police, known as “encounters”, are extremely common in India, particularly in states with active insurgencies such as Manipur, where more than 1,500 alleged cases have been registered in the last two decades.
Earlier this year, a former senior Manipur police officer, Herojit Singh, admitted to shooting dead an unarmed, 22-year-old suspected separatist and more than 100 others over the course of his career.
According to the National Human Rights Commission there were 206 encounters registered across India in the year to September 2016.
On Tuesday, opposition parties called for a judicial investigation into the deaths of the Bhopal escapees, all of who were members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India, and awaiting trial on charges including explosives offences, plotting to kill public officials and robbery.
“People of the state and country must know how terrorists with such a record were able to escape from such a high-security jail and within hours caught and shot dead,” said Kamal Nath, a Madhya Pradesh MP and Congress party member.
Senior Communist party leader Brinda Karat called the police’s version of events “highly dubious and suspicious”.
The National Investigation Agency has been asked to examine how the prisoners escaped one of India’s most secure facilities, but Singh said there was “no need for any investigation on the encounter”.
“When an encounter happens, police have no other option but to fire,” he said.
Jayshree Bajoria, a research consultant for Human Rights Watch in Delhi, said the police had a right to use proportionate force but “the various, competing accounts have raised serious questions”.
“There should be a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation,” she said. “In India, we have seen that efforts at accountability have been hampered by systematic police deniability and often ineffective investigations, and so independent investigations are critical to reducing impunity.”