Police charged 18 people on Sunday after a frenzied mob stormed a prison and lynched a rape suspect in India’s northeast, in an act of vigilante justice condemned by rights groups and political leaders.
Police arrested the men for rioting in Nagaland state, but it was unclear if they were directly involved in stripping and beating to death Syed Farid Khan, whose body was then strung up to a clock tower on Thursday.
Tensions had been rising in Dimapur city ahead of the incident after Bengali-speaking Khan was arrested on Feb. 24 for allegedly raping a 19-year-old tribal woman multiple times.
“So far we have arrested 18 people for rioting and unlawful assembly,” said Inspector General of Police, Wabang Jamir. “We are now verifying if besides being part of the mob they were also directly involved in the lynching,” he said by phone from Dimapur. “We have already identified many more people [for arrest] from videos and photos [of the incident on social media],” he added.
Hundreds of riot police have been patrolling the streets of Dimapur district since the incident amid heightened tensions. Jamir said mobile phone and Internet restrictions remained in place but a round-the-clock curfew would be partially lifted.
The lynching comes as India is in the midst of a raging controversy over a government order to ban the broadcast of a documentary about the December 2012 fatal gang-rape of a young student in New Delhi. India has seen an outpouring of anger over frightening levels of violence against women since the 2012 attack, which sparked shock both within India and around the world.
But the lynching is also linked to ethnic tensions in Nagaland, whose indigenous tribal groups have for years accused growing numbers of Muslim migrants from neighboring Assam state and Bangladesh of settling on their land and eating into resources.
Several thousand people overpowered security at the Dimapur Central Prison on Thursday searching for rape suspect Khan, whom Nagaland’s government initially said was a Bangladeshi immigrant. Khan, who is from Assam, was stripped and paraded on the streets before the mob armed with sticks beat him to death, according to local media.
The chief minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, on Saturday branded the incident “barbaric, heinous and inhuman” while Amnesty International urged justice for those responsible. “Violence against women needs to be tackled with swift and effective responses from the state, not with barbarism by self appointed vigilantes,” it said in a statement.
Khan’s brother, a sergeant in the Indian army, has accused police of falsely implicating his brother in the rape to try to root out non-tribals from Nagaland, which is predominantly Christian. The largest Naga tribe has previously campaigned to evict Bengali-speaking immigrants from their territory.
The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, said Khan had given her ₹5,000 after the attack in return for her silence. “It was only after the incident, he gave me the money to keep silent, so I took the money and gave it to the police station,” the woman told the NDTV network.
Jamir said the woman’s initial medical report “confirmed rape and other… injuries on her body.”