Jeyaraj and Benicks: Five policemen arrested over India custody deaths

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image captionThe deaths have gained national media attention

Five policemen have been arrested and charged with murder in relation to the custodial deaths of a father and son in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

P Jeyaraj, 58, and his son Benicks, 38, died on 22 June, two days after being released from police custody.

They had been arrested for allegedly keeping their store open past permitted hours during the coronavirus lockdown.

The incident sparked widespread protests, prompting a local court to launch its own investigation.

On Tuesday, it said that there were grounds for murder charges to be brought against the officers who had been transferred after the incident.

The two men had been held all night at the Sathankulam police station in the town of Tuticorin. Both died within two days of being released.

The family alleged that they had been tortured - and as the gruesome details emerged the case sparked outrage on and off social media, and soon gained national attention.

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image captionThe family has alleged the two men died of torture

The court cited the serious injuries listed in the post-mortem report as well as eyewitness testimony by a female constable at the police station - both of which were part of the magistrate's findings.

Police violence is both widespread and routine in India - a recent report says 1,700 people died in police custody in India in 2019, amounting to five deaths a day. But it's rare that officers are held accountable.

What did the court say?

Based on a report by the local magistrate who is investigating the deaths, the high court first said there was a "prima facie" case of murder against the main accused.

Hours later, the five policemen were arrested.

The magistrate's report included eyewitness testimony by the female constable at the police station in Sathankulam - and the court has asked district officials to ensure her safety.

The court also reprimanded the officers after the magistrate complained that they had been uncooperative during the investigation, and alleged that they had sought to withhold and tamper with evidence.

According to the magistrate, the CCTV footage from the night of the assault had been erased; and the officers had initially refused to hand over the batons they had allegedly used to beat the two men with.

"They [police] were emboldened enough to even intimidate the judicial officer to put spokes in the wheel of his enquiry," the court said.

It initiated contempt of court proceedings against three officers named by the magistrate.

The state government transferred the case to federal investigators after the court noted that "a free and fair investigation and inquiry" would be difficult otherwise.

What has happened to the police officers involved?

The officers who were accused in the deaths were initially transferred and, as demands for more severe action grew, they were suspended.

Then, in an unusual turn of events, the court put local revenue officials in charge of the Sathankulam police station to preserve evidence and prevent any further tampering.

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image captionPolice have been repeatedly used of using excessive force to enforce the lockdown

And hours after the court accused the officers of failing to co-operate in the investigation, 27 officers from the station were transferred.

The state government has now moved 30 new officers to the police station to fill the vacant positions.

Meanwhile, the police station has been implicated in several other instances of custodial torture and at least two allegations of custodial deaths - with the court saying it has received multiple complaints.

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