'Our George Floyds': Outrage at custodial deaths in Tamil Nadu

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Outrage over the death of a father-son duo in police custody in Tamil Nadu’s Sathankulam mounted on Saturday, with political leaders in the state promising swift action in the case that has been compared to the killing of a black American in alleged police brutality in the United States.

P Jayaraj, 59, and J Fennix Immanuel, 31, were tortured and brutally thrashed by the police, which resulted in rectal bleeding and eventual death, according to a letter to government officials written by Jayaraj’s wife J Selvarani.

According to a first information report, the two were arrested on June 19 in Sathankulam in Thoothukudi district for allegedly violating lockdown norms by keeping their shop open for longer hours and defying the night curfew. They were remanded in judicial custody and lodged in Kovilpatti jail in the town on June 21.

Fennix died on Monday after complaining of breathlessness and his father died a day after at the Kovilpatti government hospital, chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami, who oversees the police in the state, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“We will take action over this incident as per the law,” Palaniswami said.

Four policemen, including two sub-inspectors, have been suspended over the incident, reported news agency PTI.

Hundreds of social media users, celebrities and political leaders condemned the incident, which was among the top Twitter topics trending in the country on Friday and among the top 30 trending globally.

“The George Floyds of India are far too many... Will Indians march on streets in thousands, like America?” wrote Gujarat legislator Jignesh Mevani, referring to events following the death in police custody on May 25 of George Floyd, a black American, in Minneapolis last month. Bollywood actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas wrote on Twitter she was absolutely “stunned” and “angry” over the incident, adding: “The guilty must not be allowed to go unpunished. We need facts. I cannot even begin to imagine what the family must be going through.”

The only way to handle this is through a swift, fair, transparent investigation & the equally swift delivery of justice, Mahindra Group chairman Anand Mahindra said in a tweet on Saturday.

Amid furore over the incident, the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) said in another statement on Friday the government will ensure justice is delivered even as the opposition DMK targeted the administration for allowing the police to take the law in their own hands. DMK chief and Leader of Opposition in the state Assembly MK Stalin also said those responsible for the “barbarity” should be punished and that his party would support all legal action against the guilty. Both the parties also announced compensation of ₹25 lakh each for the family of the victims.

The incident triggered demonstrations across the state, with traders shutting shops on Friday in protest against the alleged police brutality.Political parties led by MK Stalin of the DMK held a protest rally, a day after party leader and Rajya Sabha member MK Kanimozhi visited the family.

On Friday, Thoothukudi superintendent of police Arun Balagopalan also submitted a status report to the Madurai Bench of the Madras high court, which had taken suo motu cognizance of the matter on June 24. The next hearing is scheduled to be held on June 30.

Nearly 15 cases of custodial violence and torture were reported in every day on average, with nine people dying in judicial or police custody every 24 hours, according to the latest annual report by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) for the year 2017-18. The NHRC said in its report that some custodial deaths were reported after considerable delay or not reported at all, adding violence in custody was so rampant “that it has become almost routine”.

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