Sterlite protests: Thoothukudi calm but tense as lawyers work overtime to get detainees released from police custody

Thoothukudi looks similar to a war zone. Few vehicles and government buses ply on desolate roads, guarded by armed police forces. Almost every commuter is being stopped and questioned by police personnel.

Three days since policemen opened fire at protesters, killing at least 13, fresh allegations of police torture and high handedness continue to supplement the atmosphere of fear that is keeping local residents confined to their houses.

 Sterlite protests: Thoothukudi calm but tense as lawyers work overtime to get detainees released from police custody

Police personnel deployed after violent protests demanding the closure of Vedanta's Sterlite Copper unit, in Tuticorin, on Thursday. Over 100 people were arrested for protesting police firing on Tuesday and Wednesday in the port city that left 13 dead. PTI

Members of the Thoothukudi bar association, who filed a petition under IPC section 97 (Right of private defence of the body and of property), alleged that several people had been confined at the Vallanad Shooting Range in Thoohtukudi.

"Following our petition, chief judicial magistrate (Thoothukudi) Bhagavathi Amal sent Vilathikulam Magistrate K Muthuvel to take stock of the situation and ensure the release of detainees. But on visiting Pudukottai police station, the legal team found out that no detainees were kept there. They had been detained at the Vallanad shooting range," said an advocate associate with the Thoothukudi Bar Association, in condition of anonymity.

"When the magistrate reached the spot (Vallanad), he saw that several detainees were sitting there without clothes, wearing only their underwear. Statements from all of those were collected and they were later produced in front of the chief judicial magistrate, where they were given bail," he added. The advocate informed that over a 140 people were produced in court.

Denying the allegations, police said, "The people who were arrested from home were wearing the same clothes that they were during the time of arrests. We gave them proper food and water. We never laid a hand on them."

A police official added that the detainees were granted bail by the judicial magistrate following the Thoothukudi Bar Association’s petition.

But despite the police saying that the situation is Thoothukudi is returning to normalcy, a local resident said, "The current situation remains pathetic. Some shops have opened but most remain closed. Yesterday, policemen remanded several youngsters without providing any reasons. Some of them have been released but many remain missing."

Another resident, however, agreed with the police and said, "Right now the situation is normal, but police are still in groups everywhere. Only if any youngsters move around in bikes they are being stopped for questioning."

District Collector Sandeep Nanduri said, "The situation is returning to normalcy in Thoothukudi. Buses are being operated to Madurai and Tirunelveli. Local buses will also be operated soon. The Aavim booth supplied 11,500 liters of milk to people today. Amma canteens will be open 24/7 and provide free meals for three days. Vegetable markets and ration shops are open and people are getting their basic needs."

While the protests have been subdued, allegedly by brute muscle and gun power that was exercised unconstitutionally by the police, in Thoothukudi, opposition party members accompanied by activists and local residents are creating a stir across the state.

Several opposition leaders, including DMK MP Kanimozhi, were detained while protesting at the Egmore area in Chennai on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court announced that it will hear a petition filed by Desiya Murpokku Dravia Kazagham (DMDK) leader and Supreme Court advocate, GS Mani on Monday.

Mani submitted in his petition that the death of 10 innocent civilians in the hands of police is not an ordinary murder case but a rare instance where state machinery was abused in the name of security and demanded for a CBI inquiry against the former Thoothukudi superintendent of police P Manikandan and former district collector N Venkatesh. The petition also demands for a compensation of Rs 50 lakh each for the families of those who were killed in police firing and Rs 25 lakh for the families of those who were injured. "It (the situation in Thoothukudi) is a complete failure of the government and the administration. It is a case of murder and the accused should be booked under section 307 (IPC)," said Mani.

Alleging that the Thoothukudi Police firing which claimed 13 lives was premeditated and ordered by higher authorities to kill unarmed anti–Sterlite protestors, Tamil Desiya Periayakkam leader P Maniarasan said he has photographs of former Thoothukudi collector N Venkatesh posing with policemen who shot at protesters before the firing happened on Tuesday.

Maniarasan who visited families of the victim in Thoothukudi on Wednesday, said, "The streets in Thoothukudi are deserted and people are in the grip of fear. We have visited over 65 women who have been admitted in two wards in the general hospital."

Residents in Thoothukudi seem to have lost all faith on the government and are hopeful the judiciary will help them out of their turmoil.

"Over a 100 youngsters were brutally attacked and kept semi-nude. The magistrates brought those people back, but we fear that there are several others like them who are illegally detained by policemen. There are several people missing and we are afraid about their whereabouts," a local resident said, while another said, "the judiciary are the only ones supporting us."

"All advocates are working together to ensure that these people (those who were arrested) are released. All of us were at court till 2 am yesterday. All advocates from the Bar Association are helping to get these people out," a member of the Thoothukudi Bar Association said.

The protestors have been demanding permanent closure of the Sterlite copper factory and stringent action against officials responsible for killing 13 and injuring several others.

While the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) ordered the Sterlite plant shut and discontinued electric supply to the factory, a TNPCB official said that the order will to be reworked. "We can’t comment on anything till we receive the reworked order. Power supply to the factory will remain disconnected till then," the official said.

Updated Date: May 25, 2018 20:52:54 IST