Covid-19 Pandemic: Crackdown On Dissent Putting Lives At Immediate Risk In India

Amnesty International India
Bengaluru / New Delhi: 1 May 2020 11:24 am

The Government of India’s ongoing crackdown on dissent and free speech is leading to the arrest of journalists, activists, lawyers and students under repressive laws and being sent to overcrowded prisons which are potential COVID-19 hotspots. This crackdown during the pandemic puts their lives at immediate risk, said Amnesty International India today.

27-year-old Safoora Zargar, a research student from Jamia Millia University was arrested on 10 April by the Delhi police and later charged under the repressive Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Safoora who is also three months pregnant is accused by the Delhi police of being a key ‘conspirator’ in the Delhi riots that took place in north-eastern part of the capital city in February. Before the riots, Safoora, as part of the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC), had been organising peaceful protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). She is currently imprisoned in Tihar jail which is one of the most overcrowded prisons in the country and has not been able to access her lawyer or meet her husband since 14 April.

Safoora’s pregnancy is a mitigating factor against her continued detention under UAPA, particularly amidst 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 also recommend that while deciding on pre-trial measures, non-custodial alternatives should be preferred for pregnant women where possible and appropriate.

Besides Safoora Zargar, Meeran Haider who is a member of the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC) and Shifa-Ur-Rehman, President of the Jamia Millia Islamia Alumni Association have also been arrested under UAPA and sent to Tihar Jail. Under UAPA, Safoora, Meeran and Shifa-Ur- Rahman can be kept in detention without charge for up to 180 days or even more, which is far beyond international standards. It also contains no provisions for adequate pre-trial safeguards against torture and other ill-treatment.

“The Government of India has been exceedingly intolerant towards free speech and dissent. But to arrest Safoora who is in the second trimester of her pregnancy and send her to an overcrowded prison during the pandemic highlights how brutal is the ongoing clampdown in the country”, said Avinash Kumar, Executive Director, Amnesty International India. “Prison inmates have already tested positive for the COVID-19 virus at a central prison in Indore and a district prison in Karnataka. While the country battles the COVID-19 pandemic, it is extremely cruel of the government to arrest and imprison a person using repressive laws just because they have been critical of the government. The government is putting their lives at grave risk”, said Avinash Kumar.

Governments in India have routinely used repressive laws such as UAPA and sedition, to bypass human rights and stifle dissent. In 2018, the conviction rate under UAPA was 27% while 93% of the cases remained pending in the court. Similarly, since 2016, only 7 sedition cases saw conviction. These laws are mere tools of harassment that the government uses to harass, intimidate and imprison those who are critical of the government. The slow investigative processes and extremely stringent bail provisions under these laws ensure that they are locked up for years altogether.

It is also worthy to note that while peaceful protesters face arbitrary detention  under draconian laws, the allegations of excessive force against protesters during the CAA protests which resulted in a number of deaths, as also pointed out in the communication by Special Rapporteurs * dated 28 February 2020 to the Government of India remain to be investigated.

In the month of April alone this year, the state has filed numerous cases under repressive laws against journalists, activists, lawyers and students across the country. Two journalists in Jammu and Kashmir – Masrat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani were slapped with UAPA cases for social media posts and photographs. Umar Khalid, a student leader has also had cases filed under UAPA for his alleged involvement in the 2020 Delhi riots. Two activists, Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha were also arrested by the National Investigative agency under UAPA and sent to prison for their alleged involvement in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon riots.

In February this year, Amulya Leona, a 19-year-old undergraduate student of journalism was booked for sedition for shouting “Pakistan Zindabad” at a protest against the CAA. Amulya has been in the central prison in Bengaluru for more than two months now.

In January 2020, Sharjeel Imam, an activist was arrested for sedition for his speeches against the CAA. On 29 April, the Delhi police also filed cases under UAPA against the activist.

On 12 December 2019, Akhil Gogoi, an activist and leader of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), a peasant rights organisation based in Assam, was arrested by the Assam police under various sections of the UAPA. He was released on bail in March only to be arrested again by the authorities.

On 3 April, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) urged countries around the world in view of the pandemic to release “every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners, and those detained for critical, dissenting views”. It also called for the release of pregnant women, older persons and persons with disabilities. But till now, India has not released any political dissidents. Instead, it continues to arrest those who dissent and are critical of the government using draconian laws.

“The Government of India has shown that even during a pandemic when it should be focusing on protecting all of its people without discrimination, it will continue to harass and jail those for peacefully exercising their human rights”, said Avinash Kumar. “Laws like the UAPA and sedition have no place in the country whether there is a pandemic or not. In fact, the current pandemic presents an opportunity to the Government of India to immediately end this ongoing crackdown on dissent and free speech which has created a climate of fear across the country. The first steps towards this is to repeal these laws”.

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* Special Rapporteur on rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; the Special Rapporteur on the right to education; the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; the Special Rapporteur on minority issues; the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Photo Courtesy: anweshanam

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Nazia Erum
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