India police under fire over prisoner killings

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Indian police officials gather at the entrance to The Central Jail in Bhopal on November 1, 2016, a day after some inmates escaped and were killed in an encounter with security personnel.Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The eight prisoners escaped after killing a guard, police said

Police in India are facing serious questions after they killed eight prisoners who they said had murdered a guard and escaped from jail using bed sheets to scale a wall. BBC Hindi's Vineet Khare explains the debate that has erupted around the police version of events.

What happened in the jailbreak?

On Monday, police announced that eight "highly dangerous" members of the banned Islamist group Students' Islamic Movement of India (Simi) broke out of a high security prison in the city of Bhopal. Hours later, they announced all the men had been killed after a gun battle.

The state's chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was quick to commend the police, suspend senior prison officials and announce an inquiry into how the men had escaped.

How did doubts surface?

But following the incident a number of unverified videos purportedly taken just before and after the "encounter" - Indian police parlance for gun battles - surfaced on social media and television channels.

In one video, a police officer is seen shooting something. In the next frame, men are seen lying on the ground. The implication many have drawn from these videos is that at least one of the men was shot while incapacitated.

Police say the videos are unverified and they are investigating. The video has not been independently confirmed and the original source is unclear.

So was there even a gun battle?

This is the question that is being asked.

The killing of suspects in so-called "encounters" is not uncommon in India and an issue of concern for rights activists, who allege that they are effectively extra-judicial executions.

In this case a key contradiction between official accounts is causing debate. Nearly an hour after it was reported that the prisoners had been killed, one news channel quoted the state home minster as saying "Simi members didn't have guns, police had no choice but to kill them. They were dreaded terrorists".

Later that evening a senior police officer told reporters that four firearms and three sharp weapons had been recovered from the men. He also claimed police retaliated after they were fired on, and the eight prisoners had been killed in the crossfire.

Police say they are also investigating how the men had access to the weapons.

Are there concerns about the jailbreak?

Bhopal prison is considered one of India's most secure facilities, and has more than 40 security cameras. But the four cameras surrounding the one cell housing these prisoners reportedly stopped working that night.

Activists are also asking how the men managed to break out of their cells. Police claim they made "keys" from wood and toothbrushes and then tied bed sheets together to scale the prison wall. This is being questioned.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Police also said the prisoners escaped using keys fashioned from toothbrushes

"Did the men escape on their own or were they allowed to flee as part of a plan?" tweeted Digvijay Singh, a former state chief minister.

Other opposition politicians want to know why the men were all housed together when three of them were allegedly involved in another jailbreak three years ago.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Opposition politicians and activists say that there are a lot of unanswered questions

What have the authorities said?

The police have said they are investigating the questions that have been raised but emphasised that all this footage is totally unverified. They deny accusations the killings were staged to look like a gun battle.

But some politicians have said that the debate is not about the truth but party politics.

"Matters of national security shouldn't be politicised," the Madhya Pradesh state home minister Bhoopendra Singh Thakur from the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party told the BBC.

He found support from federal minister M Venkaiah Naidu.

"Some people are concerned about the people who escaped from jail, who always break law. These people are showing more concern towards them than showing concern towards the safety and security of Indians and of India as a nation."