Four men suspecting of raping and killing a 27-year-old vet in India have been shot dead by police, sparking a row over so-called “encounter” killings.
The men had been in police custody and were taken back to the scene of the crime early on Friday morning, ostensibly to help investigators recover the victim’s stolen items.
But they when they reportedly tried to grab the weapons of the officers accompanying them, they were shot and killed.
All four suspects – two truck drivers and two truck cleaners aged 20 to 26 – died in the crossfire, said N Prakash Reddy, a deputy commissioner of police in Shamshabad, near Hyderabad.
He also confirmed that two police officers had been injured, and that the incident had happened at about 6am.
The case of the woman’s rape and murder on Wednesday last week had sparked outrage in India, with some MPs demanding the suspects be castrated and even lynched, HuffPost India reported.
Indian police have frequently been accused of extra-judicial killings, called “encounters”, especially in gangland wars in Mumbai and insurrections in the state of Punjab and in disputed Kashmir. Police officers involved in such killings were called “encounter specialists” and have been the subject of several films.
The news has been celebrated by thousands of people, who took to the streets in support of police, and the victim’s mother told the BBC “justice has been done”.
But T Pranitha, a 31-year-old Indian woman now living in the US whose attackers had been killed during such a police ‘encounter’ in 2008, told HuffPost India there was “no justice in that kind of action”, and that pre-empting and addressing violence against women was the best form of justice.
Amnesty International has called for an inquiry to determine whether or not the deaths this week were the result of extrajudicial killings, the BBC reported.
“Extrajudicial killings are not a solution to preventing rape,” said Avinash Kumar, executive director of Amnesty International India.
News of the deaths was quickly shared online, with thousands of people using the hashtag “encounter” – with a clear divisions appearing between those who celebrated the deaths of the suspects and others who were concerned by the news.
No details were immediately available about how many police had escorted the four accused and whether they were handcuffed or roped together, which is common practice.
Earlier a local police official had put the time of the deaths at about 3.30am. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.
During the past week, thousands of Indians have protested in several cities following the alleged rape and murder of the veterinarian.
The woman had left home for an appointment on her moped and later called her sister to say she had a flat tyre. She said a lorry driver had offered to help and that she was waiting near a toll plaza.
Police say she was then abducted, raped, and asphyxiated. Her body was found on the outskirts of Hyderabad on November 28, after being set alight.
Her family welcomed the news of the killings of the alleged perpetrators.
“It has been 10 days to the day my daughter died. I express my gratitude towards the police and government for this. My daughter’s soul must be at peace now,” Reuters partner ANI quoted her father as saying.
A crowd gathered at the site of the shooting and threw flower petals at police vans in support of the action. Some shouted: “Long live police”; others hoisted police officials onto their shoulders.
Anger has flared repeatedly in India after a number of cases of crimes against women, which have continued at a high rate despite tough new laws being enacted in the wake of he 2012 gang rape and murder of a woman on a Delhi bus that led to an outpouring of anger across the country.
Despite the setting up of fast track courts, cases have moved slowly, for lack of witnesses and the inability of many families to go through the long legal process.
Some victims and their families have ended up being attacked for pursuing cases against powerful men, among them local politicians.
Many Indians applauded the killings on Friday, taking to Twitter to support the police.
“Great work #hyderabadpolice ..we salute u,” wrote Indian badminton star and former world No. 1 Saina Nehwal.
On Twitter, #encounter was the top-trending hashtag in India and fourth worldwide.
In Uttar Pradesh state, where a rape victim was set ablaze on Thursday while she was on her way to court, opposition politician Mayawati said the police there should take “inspiration” from what happened in Hyderabad.
Indian police registered more than 32,500 cases of rape in 2017, according to the most recent government data. But courts disposed of only about 18,300 cases related to rape that year, leaving more than 127,800 cases pending at the end of 2017.
But some people said the lack of progress in the courts did not mean the police had a free hand to dispense justice.
“This isn’t instant justice – this is the absence of justice. We’re not going to make women safer by abandoning the rule of law – is that so hard to understand?,” said Rukmini S, an Indian columnist in a tweet.
Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover said the police who were involved in Friday’s incident should face an inquiry, but in all likelihood would be rewarded with medals. “Killing accused like this is a short cut, but in the long run this won’t work, it will carry its own consequences.”
There was no immediate word from prime minister Narendra Modi’s government on the incident but Maneka Gandhi, a lawmaker from his Bharatiya Janata Party, said the police appeared to have over-reached.
Gandhi said: “You can’t take law in your hands. They [the accused] would’ve been hanged by court anyhow. If you’re going to shoot them before due process of law has been followed, then what’s the point of having courts, law and police?”