On 19 June 2020, 58-year-old Jeyaraj and his 31-year-old son Emmanuel Beniks had left their home in Sathankulam to run the mobile shop they owned. In the evening, when the two were getting ready to pull down the shutters of the shop and head home for dinner, their lives changed forever.
The custodial death of the two men in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district had sparked massive outrage in the state over police brutality. One year later, we look back at the case, the status of the trial, and what Jeyaraj and Benik’s friends have to say on the custodial deaths.
'Can't Believe It Has Been a Year'
Jeyaraj's wife, Selvarani, left Sathankulam in August 2020 is now living with her daughter, Persis in Puliangudi in the neighbouring Tenkasi district.
Persis relocated from Vijayawada to Puliangudi after the Tamil Nadu government gave her a job.
Ravi, Beniks' close friend, who stood outside the police station on the fateful night told The Quint, "There isn't a day that goes by when I don't think of him. Benny was such a good man and a friend that I can't believe we have managed a year without him."
"One year? Their faces are still fresh in my mind and also their cries. Can't believe it has been a year," said another friend of Beniks to The Quint.
Family and friends of the duo are planning to conduct a prayer meeting on 22 June.
That Fateful Day
On 18 June, policemen on patrol had warned stern action against Jeyaraj and his son as they had kept their shop open beyond the stipulated timings as dictated by the state government during the lockdown. The two immediately shut shop and returned home.
The next day, at around 7.45 pm Sub Inspector Balakrishnan along with a few personnel had gone to the shop to question Jeyaraj and the two had a verbal spat. Beniks then rushed behind the police van that took his father away. His friends told The Quint that they had stood outside the station for hours, while the father and son were brutally assaulted with lathis.
“They hit Benny’s bottom repeatedly with the lathi till he began bleeding. When his father told the cops to stop, they did the same to him. The two were bleeding profusely from everywhere,” a friend had told The Quint.
The friends confirmed their suspicion when they saw their blood-soaked clothes the next morning. That night Beniks breathed his last, and his father passed away the next morning.
There were several discrepancies in the First Information Report (FIR) and following outrage, the Madras High Court took note of the incident and instructed the police to inform the public about the suo motu cognisance the court has taken of the deaths.
Ten policemen were arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) that took over the probe and nine are still in jail while one person died due to COVID-19.
Former SHO of Sathankulam police station S Sridhar, two sub-inspectors K Balakrishnan and P Raghuganesh, two head constables S Murugan and A Samadurai, and four constables M Muthuraja, S Chelladurai, X Thomas Francis and Veyil Muthu were booked for criminal conspiracy, murder, wrongful confinement, destruction of evidence and levelling false charges.
CBI Trial Continues
Advocate Raja Pandian told The Quint, "The case is presently under investigation with the CBI. They haven't revealed the developments of the case but we are being told that it has been going on well."
In March 2021, Jeyaraj's wife Selvarani had filed a petition asking for the trial to be expedited.
"We had asked CBI to complete the trial at the earliest. CBI gave an answer that was found unsatisfactory by the Supreme Court. Why does CBI want more time? It has been eight months since they took up the case," he added.
The Madurai Bench on 28 March 2021 directed the Additional District and Sessions Judge I of Madurai to complete the trial in Sathankulam custodial death case within six months.
“The orders showed the manner in which the Thoothukudi police attempted to tamper with the evidence and tried to prevent a judicial officer from conducting inquiry,” the judge remarked. The judge said though speedy trial is imperative, it should be a fair one, uninfluenced by media reports or the orders or observations made by the court.
Later, the Supreme Court on 25 May 2021 dismissed the urgent listing of a bail plea filed by P Raghu Ganesh, who was the sub-inspector of the Sathankulam police station, when they were subjected to custodial torture.
"This is a very bad case. This is a case for which you should be in jail for some time," said Justice Saran.
Police on a Drive to Reinstate Faith in System
After the incident, several policemen came into the radar and were either suspended or transferred. Nearly 30 new police personnel were appointed to Sathankulam police station after the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court slammed the policemen for not cooperating with the Kovilpatti Judicial Magistrate for the judicial inquiry.
In an attempt to alleviate fear of the police among the public, the newly appointed police officials have been conducting awareness programmes and even occasional checks of the neighbourhood to hear the people's grievances.
A local told The Quint that the administration has set up CCTV cameras in the entire area for constant monitoring which has made them feel safer.