Delhi — Police in India have shot dead four men accused in a horrific rape-murder case that sparked country-wide protests. The four men were accused of the November 27 gang rape and murder of a 27-year-old veterinarian in the southern city of Hyderabad. The woman's body was burned after the sexual assault in an apparent effort by the perpetrators to destroy the evidence.
Telangana State Police arrested the four men the next day, and they had been in custody ever since. Police said that before dawn on Friday, around 3:30 a.m. local time, the four were taken to the crime scene to walk investigators through a reconstruction of the incident. According to the police, they tried to grab weapons from some of the officers and were then killed in a shootout.
"They were killed in crossfire. They tried to snatch weapons from the guards but were shot dead," Prakash Reddy, a deputy commissioner of police in Hyderabad, told media, adding that the men died before any medical help could arrive.
The crime scene, where the woman's charred remains were found, is under a highway bridge. A huge crowd gathered around the bridge after the shooting, celebrating the killing of the suspects and lauding police for their actions. Some showered police officers with flower petals.
"It has been 10 days to the day (since) my daughter died. I express my gratitude towards the police and the government for this," the victim's father told India's ANI news agency. "My daughter's soul must be at peace now."
It was the latest shocking episode involving a case of violence against women in India. On Thursday, aas she travelled to a court to give evidence against two men she had accused of rape last year. She sustained burns over 70 percent of her body and was transferred to a hospital in Delhi for treatment. The two original suspects and three other men were arrested for questioning.
In the Hyderabad case, the four suspects allegedly saw the veterinarian parking her scooter near a toll booth on a busy highway on November 27. Police said they flattened her scooter tire and then waited for her to come back. When she did, they offered to fix her scooter and brought her to a truck yard where the alleged gang rape took place. Police say the woman, who cannot be identified under Indian law, was strangled to death before her body was set alight under the bridge.
While the gruesome attack drew instant anger and protests from the Indian public, opinion has been divided over the police's handling of the investigation.
There have been suggestions that the police killed the suspects essentially to avoid criticism over their handling of the case, or simply to appease an angry public. There were raucous demonstrations following their arrest, including a crowd that tried to storm the police station in Hyderabad, demanding the suspects be executed.
The circumstances have led many to believe the early morning shooting was the result of a "fake encounter" — a term used in India to describe extra-judicial police killings of a suspect or suspects in custody, often followed by a claim of an escape attempt.
"This is absolutely unacceptable," activist and lawyer Vrinda Grover told French news agency AFP. "There must be accountability of the police. Instead of investigation and prosecution the state is committing murders to distract public and avoid accountability."
India has struggled to address an epidemic of. More than 33,000 rapes were reported to police in 2017, the most recent national statistics available, and experts believe many more have gone unreported. There is also a significant backlog of cases in India's justice system, so many victims wait years for their day in court.