Updated: April 14, 2015 12:30 AM GMT
India's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has ordered an investigation into the killing of 20 people in southern India following a joint operation by police and forest officials earlier this month.
Rights groups say that the slayings, which took place on April 7, were extra-judicial killings — a claim that has raised suspicions of a cover-up.
The NHRC order comes after two of three witnesses made statements before the commission in Delhi on Tuesday.
The commission also ordered protection for the three witnesses and their families after being told that their lives were at risk.
The 20 men were killed in the Seshachalam forest area in Andhra Pradesh state in a joint operation carried out by police and forest officials who suspected the men were smuggling red sanders, a rare and expensive wood.
The state government claims that the alleged smugglers attacked authorities with stones and sickles, and that police fired in self defense.
However, media reports said the men were daily wage laborers and not smugglers.
Sekar, one of the witnesses, told the NHRC that he and his neighbor, Mahendran, along with two others, left their village in Tiruvannamalai district to go to work for a construction company.
On their way to work their bus was stopped and the other three were taken off by force by a middle-aged man, he said.
After returning home, Sekar later learned that his companions had been killed by the authorities.
Balachandran, another witness, said his father and seven other men were taken off a bus as they were making their way to look for work in Pondicherry. He had missed the bus.
He told the NHRC that he later learned his father and the seven others were among the 20 killed.
The third witness Illangovan, also a daily laborer, could not travel to Delhi to give his statement. The NHRC sent someone to him to record the statement.
“The three men survived the killings due to sheer providence and luck, or their corpses would have been among those lying in the Seshachalam forest,” Henry Tiphagne of rights group People’s Watch said on Tuesday.
The rights group filed the complaint to the commission.
He said he believes there are more witnesses to the alleged extra-judicial killings who were afraid to speak out for fear of their lives.
Vrinda Grover, a Supreme Court lawyer assisting People’s Watch in the case, said the witnesses’ testimonies provide “a strong reason to contradict the claim of the government that the encounter took place in self defense”.
“Whether somebody is a smuggler of a terrorist, the law of the country does not give authority to the police to kill that person. The label that the police attach to that person should not provide justification for the killing. It needs to be investigated,” she said.
Police officials were unavailable for comment at the time of publication.
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