Several questions on the custodial deaths of the father and son remain unanswered by the Thoothukudi police.
What started off as a normal work day for 31-year-old Bennix, the owner of a mobile phone shop in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district, turned out to be the starting point of a fatal ordeal. On Friday, June 19, around 8 pm, Bennix was in his shop near the Kamarajar statue in Sathankulam town when his friend rushed to him with the news that his father Jayaraj had been picked up by the police. Worried about his 58-year-old father, Bennix rushed to the Sathankulam police station only to be called in by the police officers there for an ‘inquiry’. Three days later, on June 23, Bennix’s friends and family were told by the police that the duo had died at the Kovilpatti Government Hospital, around 100 kilometres from their town.
Perhaps one of the worst incidents of police brutalities alleged in the country during the COVID-19 lockdown, the Sathankulam custodial deaths have sparked massive outrage in Tamil Nadu. People are demanding justice for the victims’ family and strict action against the policemen involved. The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court took suo motu cognisance of the case on Wednesday and stepped in to monitor the proceedings.
Amidst the massive outrage following the deaths, several allegations have been made. Here is a round up of what we know so far, and the questions that remain unanswered:
Facts of the case, from arrests to death
According to multiple eyewitnesses, on Friday, June 19, the Sathankulam police had picked up Jayaraj and taken him to the police station to conduct an inquiry about an altercation that had allegedly taken place between the police and a few others near Jayaraj’s woodworks shop the previous day.
Bennix and the friend rushed to the Sathankulam police station to check on his father. After making Bennix wait for a while outside the station, the police called him in. As Bennix went inside, questioning why the police had assaulted his father, he was also allegedly attacked by the police. Bennix’s friends were not allowed inside the station and were not allowed to meet Bennix or his father until Saturday, June 20.
According to the police’s version, around 9.15 pm on June 19, S Murugan, the head constable and constable Muthuraj were on their patrolling duty in the area where Bennix’s shop is located. “The shop was open after the curfew time imposed by the district administration due to lockdown. Jayaraj, his son Bennix and a few other friends were standing outside the shop. We told them to disperse. While others went away, Jayaraj and Bennix sat on the ground and abused us verbally and rolled on the ground. In this, they suffered internal injuries,” the FIR stated.
The FIR said that the policemen told the duo about the COVID-19 curfew in place, to which the father and the son reportedly threatened to kill the policemen. “They told us that if we compelled them to leave, they will beat us and kill us,” the FIR claimed. The police version of events said that the duo were brought to the police station and then an FIR was registered around 10 pm on June 19 by P Raghuganesh, one of the sub-inspectors in the station.
However, eyewitnesses say that Bennix and his father were not brought to the station together, and that in fact the son was arrested later.
According to a report in the New Indian Express, those standing outside the station when Bennix and Jayaraj were inside heard the police shout ‘You dare speak against the police’. Eyewitnesses also alleged that once sub inspector Raghuganesh arrived at the station around 11.30 pm on June 19, the violence inside escalated and that the police volunteers who were present in the station also joined the police in assaulting the duo.
Jayaraj’s daughter and Bennix’s sister Percy told media persons on June 24 that the policemen had pushed her father by his neck to the floor and beaten him. “When my brother questioned the police why they were beating our father, the police hit him also. My father got tensed seeing this. The police then thrashed them both for almost two hours, locking the door. My brother’s friends who were lawyers went and stood in front of the station but the police didn’t let them in. They have assaulted my brother and father so much,” she said.
Watch Bennix’s sister speak to the media here:
Eyewitnesses told multiple news outlets that the father and son had been bleeding so profusely, that they had to change as many as six lungis as each one was drenched in blood.
The police say that on June 20, they first took Bennix and Jayaraj to the hospital to get their medical fitness test, and then took them both to the Sathankulam judicial magistrate D Saravanan.
Several questions have been raised about the way in which the magistrate “mechanically” passed remand orders of the duo, reportedly without examining their physical fitness as is mandated by the law. The father and son were then taken to the Kovilpatti sub-jail, around 100 kilometres away from Sathankulam.
On the night of Monday, June 22, Bennix died at the Kovilpatti Government Hospital after complaining of chest pain. In the wee hours of Tuesday, June 23, Jayaraj too breathed his last in the same hospital.
Protests break out, officers suspended
As the news of Jayaraj and Bennix’s deaths spread, scores of shopkeepers and members of the public in Sathankulam town staged a dharna on Tuesday, expressing their condemnation against police brutality. On Wednesday, shops and commercial establishments across the state downed their shutters in protest against the custodial death of the two men.
While the police has not admitted to any undue use of force on Jayaraj and Bennix, the Thoothukudi police suspended two sub-inspectors in the Sathankulam station, Balakrishnan and P Raghuganesh. Inspector Sridhar was transferred to a ‘waiting list’ on June 24. Appearing before the Madras High Court, Thoothukudi Superintendent of Police Arun Balagopalan stated that disciplinary action has been initiated against constables S Murugan and Muthuraj.
High Court steps in
After demands for justice grew louder, the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court took suo motu cognisance of the matter. On June 24, a Bench consisting of Justices PM Prakash and B Pugalendhi ordered the Superintendent of Police, Thoothukudi to inquire into the incident and submit a status report.
The court ordered that the postmortem of the deceased shall be conducted by a team of three doctors and that the entire process be videographed. Based on the court’s directions, an autopsy was conducted on both bodies on Thursday and it was videographed. The court also directed the SP to submit an interim status report on Friday, June 26 through video-conferencing.
To know more about today’s hearing at the High Court, watch this:
In his interim report on Friday, Thoothukudi SP Arun Balagopalan submitted that the postmortem report was ready and ‘due to the restrictions’ in place because of COVID-19, he was not able to submit it in a sealed cover, as ordered by the court.
The court accepted the SP’s submissions and ordered that everybody cooperate with the inquiry that will be conducted by the Kovilpatti judicial magistrate. The court ordered that jail records, the postmortem report and CCTV footage from the police station and the jail be preserved and submitted on June 30, when the next hearing in the case is scheduled.
Allegations of police violence, sexual brutalities
Amid growing protests, Percy alleged that the policemen had attacked her brother in the anus. She named eight policemen and four police volunteers, accusing them of beating her father and brother in the police station.
When TNM asked the family’s lawyer Raja about the anal injuries, he said that it would be prudent to wait for the postmortem report to know the exact nature of injuries.
Several questions about the custodial deaths remain unanswered by the Thoothukudi police, including:
1. Why did the police take Jayaraj and Bennix to the prison in Kovilpatti when there is a district jail in Perurani, closer to Sathankulam?
2. What happened on the night of June 19 at the Sathankulam police station?
3. What is the exact nature of the inquiry against the accused policemen? Who is to conduct the inquiry? Where were the officers questioned and by whom were they questioned?
4. How did the magistrate approve their remand?
Meanwhile, the state government announced an ex-gratia of Rs 10 lakh to the family of the deceased. Tamil Nadu’s principal opposition party DMK announced a solatium of Rs 25 lakh to the family. AIADMK too announced an ex-gratia of Rs 25 lakh to Jayaraj and Bennix’s family.