India's human rights watchdog said more than a dozen tribal women were raped by police in restive Chhattisgarh state with the victims' lawyer slamming authorities over delays in arresting the accused.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said on Sunday at least 16 women were "victims of rape, sexual and physical assault" after it concluded an investigation into reports that police attacked several villages in Bijapur district in the central Indian state during an operation against communist rebels in October 2015.
"Prima facie, human rights of the victims have been grossly violated by the security personnel of the government of Chhattisgarh, for which the state government is vicariously liable," the government commission said in a statement.
The NHRC said it was in the process of recording the testimonies of 20 more victims who were allegedly sexually assaulted during the incident.
India is fighting thousands of armed communist rebels in the so-called "Red Corridor", which passes through swaths of resource-rich areas of central and eastern India and is mostly inhabited by underprivileged tribes.
Several media reports at the time said police officers had raped or sexually assaulted at least 40 women in five villages, and destroyed and looted homes during the anti-Maoist operation. Chhattisgarh is about 1,200km southeast of the capital, New Delhi.
Reports said 11 women were gang-raped, including a 14-year-old girl and a pregnant woman.
Police launched an investigation over the allegations, but no arrests have been made yet.
Kishore Narayan, who is representing 14 victims, told AFP news agency the panel had backed their claims and accused the police of deliberately shielding the culprits.
"The victims gave the names of the policemen involved in the barbarity but nothing has happened. They carried a sham investigation and are trying to obfuscate the case," Narayan said.
He said they have filed a petition in the Chhattisgarh High Court demanding an investigation by a special police team from outside the state.
Activists often accuse Indian security forces of committing gross human rights violations including extrajudicial killings, arson, and sexual assault in the conflict-torn region.
Communist fighters, inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, say they are battling the Indian government for land, jobs, and other rights for poor tribal groups, with thousands of lives having been lost in the decades-old insurgency.
Source: News agencies