What has happened in Tamilnadu’s Tuticorin is worse than some of the most violent cases India has witnessed in recent history. Jayaraj & Fenix Murder Case has raised a lot of questions about the brutality of Indian Police. Perhaps one of the worst incidents of police brutalities alleged in the country during the COVID-19 lockdown, the Sathankulam custodial deaths have sparked massive outrage in Tamil Nadu. Jayaraj and Fenix died at a Kovilpatti hospital on 23 June after being arrested for allegedly extending business hours of their cell phone shop in violation of lockdown norms. Their relatives have accused police of severely thrashing the father and son at Sathankulam Police Station.
Amidst the massive outrage following the deaths, several allegations have been made. People are raising questions about their own safety. People used to go police when they need protection from any kind of threat. But the one who should protect us, are turning to be predators. Here is a round up of what we know so far about the case from statement of eyewitnesses, family members and sources.
Jayaraj & Fenix Murder Case:
What started off as a normal workday for 31-year-old Fenix, the owner of a mobile phone shop in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district, turned out to be the starting point of a fatal ordeal. On June 19, around 8 pm, Bennix was in his shop near the Kamarajar statue in Sathankulam town when his friend rushed to him with the news that his father Jayaraj had been picked up by the police. Worried about his 58-year-old father, Bennix rushed to the Sathankulam police station only to be called in by the police officers there for an ‘inquiry’. Three days later, on June 23, Bennix’s friends and family were told by the police that the duo had died at the Kovilpatti Government Hospital, around 100 kilometres from their town.
Facts of the case, from arrests to death
According to multiple eyewitnesses, on Friday, June 19, the Sathankulam police had picked up Jayaraj and taken him to the police station to conduct an inquiry about an altercation that had allegedly taken place between the police and a few others near Jayaraj’s woodworks shop the previous day.
Fenix and the friend rushed to the Sathankulam police station to check on his father. After making Fenix wait for a while outside the station, the police called him in. As Fenix went inside, questioning why the police had assaulted his father, he was also allegedly attacked by the police. Fenix’s friends were not allowed inside the station and were not allowed to meet Fenix or his father until Saturday, June 20.
According to the police’s version, around 9.15 pm on June 19, S Murugan, the head constable and constable Muthuraj were on their patrolling duty in the area where Fenix’s shop is located. “The shop was open after the curfew time imposed by the district administration due to lockdown. Jayaraj, his son Fenix and a few other friends were standing outside the shop. We told them to disperse. While others went away, Jayaraj and Fenix sat on the ground and abused us verbally and rolled on the ground. In this, they suffered internal injuries,” the FIR stated.
The FIR said that the policemen told the duo about the COVID-19 curfew in place, to which the father and the son reportedly threatened to kill the policemen. “They told us that if we compelled them to leave, they will beat us and kill us,” the FIR claimed. The police version of events said that the duo were brought to the police station and then an FIR was registered around 10 pm on June 19 by P Raghuganesh, one of the sub-inspectors in the station.
However, eyewitnesses say that Fenix and his father were not brought to the station together, and that in fact the son was arrested later.
Fenix’s friends who were standing outside the station when Fenix and Jayaraj were inside reportedly heard the police shout ‘You dare speak against the police’. Eyewitnesses also alleged that once sub inspector Raghuganesh arrived at the station around 11.30 pm on June 19, the violence inside escalated and that the police volunteers who were present in the station also joined the police in assaulting the duo.
Jayaraj’s daughter and Fenix’s sister Percy told media persons on June 24 that the policemen had pushed her father by his neck to the floor and beaten him. “When my brother questioned the police why they were beating our father, the police hit him also. My father got tensed seeing this. The police then thrashed them both for almost two hours, locking the door. My brother’s friends who were lawyers went and stood in front of the station but the police didn’t let them in. They have assaulted my brother and father so much,” she said.
Advocate Manimaran, who moved the bail petition for the duo, told TNM that the father and son had been bleeding so profusely, that they had to change as many as six lungis as each one was drenched in blood.
The police say that on June 20, they first took Fenix and Jayaraj to the hospital to get their medical fitness test, and then took them both to the Sathankulam judicial magistrate D Saravanan.
Several questions have been raised about the way in which the magistrate “mechanically” passed remand orders of the duo, reportedly without examining their physical fitness as is mandated by the law. The father and son were then taken to the Kovilpatti sub-jail, around 100 kilometres away from Sathankulam.
On the night of Monday, June 22, Bennix died at the Kovilpatti Government Hospital after complaining of chest pain. In the wee hours of Tuesday, June 23, Jayaraj too breathed his last in the same hospital.
What has happened since their deaths?
As the news of Jayaraj and Fenix’s deaths spread, scores of shopkeepers and members of the public in Sathankulam town staged a dharna on 23rd June, expressing their condemnation against police brutality. On 24th June, shops and commercial establishments across the state downed their shutters in protest against the custodial death of the two men.
While the police has not admitted to any undue use of force on Jayaraj and Fenix, the Thoothukudi police suspended two sub-inspectors in the Sathankulam station, Balakrishnan and P Raghuganesh. Inspector Sridhar was transferred to a ‘waiting list’ on June 24. Appearing before the Madras High Court, Thoothukudi Superintendent of Police Arun Balagopalan stated that disciplinary action has been initiated against constables S Murugan and Muthuraj.
State opposition lawmakers have taken to the streets in protest, a traders body has condemned the actions of police, and a local court has taken up the issue for hearing.
The policemen who arrested the two men have been transferred, and the state government has awarded compensation of one million rupees (£10,716; $13,222) to their families.
The incident has also found its way to social media, which has in turn brought it into the national spotlight.
This incident has been slower to pick up, partly because it took place in a smaller city – Thoothukudi, and it took some time to come to the attention of national media.
But in recent days, the issue has begun gaining traction as furious discussion began on various social media platforms. In a video which has had more than a million views, one user said she was “sick of people not discussing what happens in south India because it is not in English” and then proceeded to give a graphic account of the alleged torture of the two men.
High Court steps in
After demands for justice grew louder, the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court took suo motu cognisance of the matter. On June 24, a Bench consisting of Justices PM Prakash and B Pugalendhi ordered the Superintendent of Police, Thoothukudi to inquire into the incident and submit a status report.
The court ordered that the postmortem of the deceased shall be conducted by a team of three doctors and that the entire process be videographed. Based on the court’s directions, an autopsy was conducted on both bodies on Thursday and it was videographed. The court also directed the SP to submit an interim status report on Friday, June 26 through video-conferencing.
In his interim report on Friday, Thoothukudi SP Arun Balagopalan submitted that the postmortem report was ready and ‘due to the restrictions’ in place because of COVID-19, he was not able to submit it in a sealed cover, as ordered by the court.
The court accepted the SP’s submissions and ordered that everybody cooperate with the inquiry that will be conducted by the Kovilpatti judicial magistrate. The court ordered that jail records, the postmortem report and CCTV footage from the police station and the jail be preserved and submitted on June 30, when the next hearing in the case is scheduled.
Allegations of police violence
Amid growing protests, Percy alleged that the policemen had attacked her brother in the anus. She named eight policemen and four police volunteers, accusing them of beating her father and brother in the police station.
When TNM asked the family’s lawyer Raja about the anal injuries, he said that it would be prudent to wait for the postmortem report to know the exact nature of injuries.
Several questions about the custodial deaths remain unanswered by the Thoothukudi police, including:
- Why did the police take Jayaraj and Fenix to the prison in Kovilpatti when there is a district jail in Perurani, closer to Sathankulam?
- What happened on the night of June 19 at the Sathankulam police station?
- What is the exact nature of the inquiry against the accused policemen? Who is to conduct the inquiry? Where were the officers questioned and by whom were they questioned?
- How did the magistrate approve their remand?
Law for custodial deaths
Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) – Section 304 – Custodial death – Nature of offence – Injuries found on body of deceased were confined to skin and upper level of body – In this case of custodial death it is found by the medical evidence that the injuries were confined to the skin and upper level of the body. Grievous injuries were not found on vital parts of the body like head, liver, spleen, heart, lungs, etc. The duration of the injuries were widely variant.
Section 176(1) Criminal Procedure Code was amended and a special procedure created for investigating custodial deaths.
For ordinary crimes, investigation is done by the police. But for custodial deaths Section 176 provided that investigation will be presided over by a judicial magistrate. The purpose of making this special provision for custodial deaths was obvious: the police investigation, in this case, might not fair since it will be one of their colleagues.
However, there is nothing in Section 176 which says that policemen accused of custodial death cannot be arrested before the enquiry by the magistrate is completed. In fact, in murder cases, the police usually arrest the accused immediately, and does not wait till the investigation is over.
It is surprising that the accused policemen have only been suspended. They should have been arrested, as was done to the killers of George Floyd in America. The inquiry and trial should thereafter be completed expeditiously, and if the accused are found guilty harsh exemplary punishment must be given, so that policemen across India learn that they cannot continue behaving as the cops did during the British Raj.
Write your comments on what High-court should do with the Police Officers? What should be the penalty for them?