By Abdul Bari Masoud
New Delhi/ Bangalore: In a major development, over 25 prominent national and international Civil Society organizations today urged the Indian government to immediate and unconditional release 11 Human rights Defenders accused in the Bhima Koregaon case and all four student activists including four months pregnant Safoora Zargar as their lives are at grave risk in the context of COVID-19 in India. In an open letter to the Union Home Minister of India, Amit Shah, they expressed serious concerned that the Indian authorities are routinely misusing draconian, anti-terrorism laws such as the UAPA which undermine human rights, stifle dissent and press freedom in India.
Prominent global groups such as Human Rights Watch; Amnesty International; Reporters Without Borders (RSF); African Center for Democracy and Human Rights Studies, ARTICLE 19 – Bangladesh and South Asia ,Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA); Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE), Ethiopia;, Center for Civil Liberties, Ukraine, Centre d'études et d'initiatives de solidarité internationale (CEDETIM), France; International Commission of Jurists; Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders; and MARUAH, Singapore and others sent a strong-worded letter to the Home Minister.
They termed the detention of student activists under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) as “illegal” and aimed to punish them for engaging in peaceful protest against a discriminatory law.
“We believe their detention is unfounded and designed to punish them for defending human rights and engaging in peaceful protest against a discriminatory law.”
In addition, their being jailed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic is unnecessarily putting their lives and health at serious risk, they warned.
“We urge you (Amit Shah) to immediately and unconditionally release all four activists, as well as other persons who have been detained, charged or convicted simply for defending human rights and exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”
Zargar, Haider and Rahman were involved in protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and arrested in April 2020. They were arrested by the Delhi Police on 10 April, 1 April and 24 April on charges of rioting and unlawful assembly, reportedly in connection with their alleged role in the demonstrations.
Referring to the Bangkok Rules for female prisoners , Rights groups said Safoora Zargar’s pregnancy made her release even more urgent, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, also known as the Bangkok Rules, recommend that while deciding on pre-trial measures, non-custodial alternatives should be preferred for pregnant women where possible and appropriate.”
The CAA, which was passed by the Indian parliament in December 2019, legitimizes discrimination on the basis of religion and contravenes the Constitution of India and international human rights law.
The letter pointed out that student Imam was arrested in January 2020 under charges of sedition for his speech during anti-CAA protests. The additional charges under UAPA were brought in April 2020.
It also pointed out that like the student activists; the authorities also arrested well known rights activists Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha under the UAPA for allegedly inciting caste-based violence during a 2018 demonstration in Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra state. Nine other activists have been detained since 2018 in relation to the same case. They are known for their work defending the rights of Adivasi and Dalit communities.
These groups also expressed grave concern over the misuse of the draconian, anti-terrorism laws such as the UAPA.
“We are seriously concerned that the Indian authorities have routinely misused draconian, anti-terrorism laws such as the UAPA, to undermine human rights, stifle dissent and press freedom.”
And adding that, “This is even more concerning during the COVID-19 pandemic. The slow investigative processes and extremely stringent bail provisions under these laws mean that human rights defenders and others who speak out may face many years behind bars unjustly.”
It is to recalled that in their communication to the Government of India on 6 May 2020, eight UN Special Rapporteurs and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention raised serious concerns about the 2019 amendment to the UAPA regarding the designation of individuals as “terrorists” in the context of ongoing discrimination directed at religious and other minorities, human rights defenders and political dissidents, against whom the law has been used.
Special Rapporteurs also noted that non-violent criticism of state policies or institutions should not be made a criminal offence under counter-terrorism measures in a society governed by the rule of law and abiding by human rights principles and obligations.
They underlined that arrests of peaceful protesters violate India’s obligations under international law, specifically the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to respect and protect the rights to liberty, to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, set out in Articles 9, 19 and 21 of that treaty.
They also reminded the Indian Home Minister that, “On 25 March 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged all states to release “every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners, and those detained for critical, dissenting views” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
With at least 200 prison inmates and jail staff testing positive for the COVID-19 across India, including in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, when the authorities misuse draconian laws to detain activists and human rights defenders, including peaceful protesters, they are not only persecuting them, they are unnecessarily putting their lives at grave risk, they added.
Referring the Supreme Court of India’s directive to decongest prisons to contain the spread of COVID-19, these groups asked the Indian government to immediately and unconditionally release all student activists who remain in jail “simply for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression by opposing the discriminatory law.”
The International and National civil society groups also demanded the immediate release of 11 rights activists and journalists who were jailed in the Bhima Koregaon case.