Southern India: Police Kill 20 Alleged Sandalwood Smugglers

By Altaf Ahmad
150407-IN-woodcutters-620 The bodies of suspected sandalwood smugglers lie in the Seshachalam forest, in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, April 7, 2015.

India’s largest human rights advocacy group on Tuesday demanded an official investigation into the shooting deaths of 20 suspected red sandalwood smugglers by police officers in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

On Tuesday morning, police shot dead 20 people during two raids in the Seshachalam forest that targeted illegal sandalwood-cutting operations. Eleven died at Pacchinodu Banda and the other nine near Etagunta, local media reported.

The officers opened fire “in self-defense” when loggers attacked them with sickles, axes and sticks, the police said, according to Agence France-Presse.

The People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) condemned the deadly shootings and accused the police of using excessive force against “unarmed civilians.”

“The slain are daily wagers who work for smugglers for peanuts. Police could have followed standard norms of policing and shot them below their knees to injure them,” V. Naresh, the national general secretary of the leading human rights group, told BenarNews by phone from Chennai.

“Smugglers are backed by politicians and senior officers, and are never targeted for committing offenses. The PUCL demands a probe into the killing of unarmed civilians and stern punishment to the accused cops responsible for the cold-blooded killings,” Naresh added.

In nearby Tamil Nadu, O. Panneerselvam, chief minister of that state, echoed the PUCL’s call for a probe into the killings.

"I seek a credible and speedy inquiry into the incident to establish the facts,” he told the Times of India, demanding that the families of the 20 slain loggers be compensated for their deaths.

According to Deputy Police Inspector-General M. Kanta Rao, when they were spotted, more than 100 smugglers and laborers came after task-force members, using cutting tools as weapons.

"Smugglers attacked cops with sharp-edged sickles and other weapons. We are ascertaining the number of cops injured in the attacks," Rao told the Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) on Tuesday.

Authorities beefed up security in adjoining districts and sounded an alert to prevent smugglers from escaping, he added.

Precious wood

Red sandalwood, a rare tree grown in forests around Andhra Pradesh, is in great demand on foreign markets.

Locals call the wood “red sander.” It is used to make aphrodisiacs, musical instruments and furniture.

Known by its scientific name, Pterocarpus santalinus, the wood is listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

One thousand kilos of red sander can fetch up to U.S. $40,170 abroad.

Because of its high value, Indian police have been targeting red sandalwood-smuggling operations in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district.

In 2013, police arrested more than 3,000 suspected smugglers and confiscated 2,025 tons of red sander. Last May, officers shot dead three suspected smugglers in Chittoor, according to media reports.

Police complicity?

Some district residents allege that smugglers who traffic sandalwood work hand-in-glove with corrupt cops.

“Notorious smugglers doing the illicit trade for past years have been given a free hand by police, and laborers working against meager daily remuneration for their livelihood have been targeted mercilessly,” Santosh Kumar, a local shopkeeper, told BenarNews by phone.

“The killings should be probed thoroughly and guilty policemen booked for murder. Had police not been in nexus with smugglers, the illicit trade could have been curbed long before,” he said.   


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