Bhima Koregaon: Clampdown On Dissent Continues, Three Human Rights Defenders Placed In Police Custody
Bengaluru/ New Delhi: 28 October 2018 3:21 pm
Reacting to the arrests of human rights defenders Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, and Vernon Gonsalves by the Maharashtra Police on 26 and 27 October, Asmita Basu, Programmes Director, Amnesty India said,
“The decision taken by a court in Pune on Friday, to reject bail applications and discontinue the house arrest of human rights defenders Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves, is unfortunate. The Maharashtra Police’s subsequent arrest of these activists, despite failing to provide credible evidence against them, is concerning.”
On 26 October, a Pune Sessions Court rejected bail applications filed by the three activists and human rights defenders. On the same day, the court also rejected Ferreira and Gonsalves’ application seeking a week’s extension of their house arrest. Following this, Ferreira and Gonsalves were taken into custody on Friday evening and activist Sudha Bharadwaj was arrested on Saturday.
“The activists who have been arrested have a history of working to protect the rights of some of India’s most marginalized people. All of them have been arrested under a draconian counter-terrorism law that has repeatedly been used to silence government critics.”
“Amnesty India believes that these arrests, along with the initial arrests of activists carried out in June and August, in relation to the Bhima Koregaon incident, are politically motivated actions that are aimed at chilling peaceful dissent. The Indian government seems to have failed in its obligation to protect human rights defenders, and the freedom of expression and assembly.”
On 6 June, Maharashtra police arrested activists Surendra Gadling, Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Shoma Sen, and Mahesh Raut. On 28 August, Maharashtra police arrested activists Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, and Varavara Rao, and raided the homes of several others.
Authorities alleged that all ten human rights defenders and activists who were arrested had incited Dalits, at a large public rally on 31 December 2017, leading to violent clashes the next day in which one person died and several were injured. Hundreds of Dalits had gathered in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra on 1 January to commemorate a 200-year-old battle in which Dalit soldiers of the British army defeated the ruling Peshwas.
All ten activists were arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and several sections of the Indian Penal Code. On 29 August, activists and academics filed a petition before the Supreme Court seeking the release of the five activists detained in August and an independent investigation into their arrests. Stating that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy,” the Supreme Court initially ordered that these five activists should be placed under house arrest and not in police custody. On 28 September, the Supreme Court held that the arrests were not an attempt to repress dissent and dismissed the petition, extended the house arrest for four more weeks, and instructed the activists to pursue relief in lower courts.
Eight out of the ten activists are now in police custody. On 25 October, a Hyderabad court extended the house arrest of Varavara Rao. On 1 October, the Delhi High Court ordered Gautam Navlakha’s release from house arrest. The Bombay High Court has restrained police from arresting Navlakha until 1 November. Further, till date, the Maharashtra police has failed to file a chargesheet against the five activists arrested in June.
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