India Must Put An End To The Unjust Cruel And Continued Incarceration Of Bhima Koregaon Activists

Amnesty International India
Bengaluru / New Delhi: 6 June 2020 10:52 am

On the second anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon arrests, the Government of India must consider the release of the 11 human rights activists pending trial and ensure that their health and safety is not jeopardised simply because they have been critical of the state, Amnesty International India said today.

On 6 June 2018, Surendra Gadling, Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut were arrested by the Pune police for their alleged involvement in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence. Since then six other activists – Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha have been arrested in connection with this case. All the 11 activists have worked relentlessly to protect the rights of some of India’s most marginalized people, including Dalits and Adivasis.

Read in Hindi here.

“The suffering faced by the activists since the last two years indicate how the process is the punishment:  shifted from one jail to another, investigations changing hands from the Pune police to the National Investigative Agency (NIA) and a smear campaign by the state and the media accusing them of being ‘anti-nationals’ working against the country. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages across the country at an alarming rate with India ranking fourth globally on active COVID-19 cases, the activists are forced to live in overcrowded prisons as undertrial prisoners for simply exercising their rights. This harassment must end. The 11 activists must be considered for release immediately”, said Avinash Kumar, Executive Director, Amnesty International India.

Repeatedly denied bail over the past two years, the nine male activists are currently detained in Taloja Central Jail, while Sudha Bharadwaj and Shoma Sen are kept at Byculla Women’s Jail in Mumbai, Maharashtra. Across Maharashtra prisons, at least 3 people have died and 259 have been infected with COVID-19, the highest in the country. In the last one month, at least one prisoner has died of COVID-19 in Taloja Central Jail whereas a medical officer and another prisoner have tested positive for the virus in Byculla Women’s Jail.

Amnesty International India is concerned about the health of the 11 activists most of whom suffer from co-morbidities. Of the 11, five are older persons. Both the factors are known to heighten the risk of serious illness in individuals who contract COVID-19 putting the activists at a higher risk.

On 28 May, 80-year-old activist and poet, Varavara Rao who suffers from coronary artery disease, oedema and hypertension fell unconscious in the jail. He was admitted in a hospital in Mumbai where he was tested negative for COVID-19. On 1 June, as soon as he became stable, he was shifted back to jail without delay.

On 29 May, activist Sudha Bharadwaj who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure filed an interim bail application on medical grounds. Her application said, “Despite measures taken by Byculla [Women’s] Jail, their own jail doctor has tested positive for COVID-19 along with another inmate. This most alarming news only indicates that inmates with co-morbidities are not safe inside and therefore there is grave danger to the applicant’s health inside”. The NIA opposed the bail plea and the court rejected her bail application.

The NIA have also subsequently opposed the bail pleas filed on medical grounds by Shoma Sen, Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde. Speaking to Amnesty International India, Anand Teltumbde’s wife, Rama said, “Anand has severe spondylitis and he is 69-years-old. He has been arrested because of his work and the government has been harassing us since 2018. Anand must be released on bail immediately; his age and health condition must be taken as a priority by the government”.

A basic protective measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is to maintain physical distancing from others. The WHO also advises people to keep at least 1 metre distance between themselves and others.  Amnesty International is concerned that the overcrowded conditions in Byculla Women’s Jail and Taloja Central Jail make physical distancing of the kind recommended by the WHO impossible.

Amnesty International India has also been told that the activists have been unable to see their lawyer or families or restricted to two minute phone conversations because of measures designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Restriction or prevention of legal visits directly impacts detainees’ right to a fair trial. To ensure that this right is not violated, all sufficient and effective measures should be put in place to make it possible for lawyers to have unimpeded access to their clients, while still guarding against the spread of COVID-19 in jails. In absence of such access, the prisoners must be immediately considered for release.

Furthermore, Article 14(3)(c) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which India is a state party, says that an accused person has the right to be tried without undue delay and that criminal proceedings should be started and completed within a reasonable time. On the contrary, in these two years, the activists have not been found guilty under any of the charges they have been accused of and continue to be imprisoned as undertrials under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, a repressive anti-terror law that makes securing bail virtually impossible. The arbitrary charges against them under this legislation also makes them ineligible for temporary release under the Government of Maharashtra’s new measures.

Calling the NIA’s actions ‘vindictive’, in a press statement, Varavara Rao’s family urged the Government of India and the governments of Maharashtra and Telangana to immediately release him on bail considering he has spent 18 months as an undertrial in prison “on fabricated charges and without any trial”.

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.

“It is nothing but cruel for the NIA to insist that these activists must continue to remain in jail as the pandemic rages across Indian prisons. The NIA which reports to the Ministry of Home Affairs continues to treat the 11 activists as if they have already been declared guilty, punishing them before they are convicted and making a mockery of their right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The 11 activists must be considered for release on bail on humanitarian grounds immediately. The Government of India says the fight against the pandemic in the country must be inclusive, it is time for the government to act on their words and ensure the health and safety of the 11 activists and other prisoners who have worked to protect the rights of India’s most marginalized people”, said Avinash Kumar.



In 2018, as part of a massive crackdown on human rights defenders in India, nine prominent activists – Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Vernon Gonsalves and Varavara Rao were arrested by the Pune Police. The police claim the nine were allegedly involved in the violence that erupted between Dalits and Hindu nationalists in January 2018 in Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra.

Following the arrests in 2018, a smear campaign was launched against the activists. The government claims they are ‘anti-nationals’ working against the country. However, the opinion of communities, where the activists work, is entirely different. In these communities, they are hailed as brave activists, committed to the causes of the poorest and most marginalised communities in the country, like Dalits & Adivasis.

On 25 January 2020, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over the Bhima Koregaon investigations from the Maharashtra state police. This came after the new Maharashtra state government had raised several questions regarding the police investigations and had also asked for probe against police officials for the manner in which the investigation was conducted. The transfer of the case to the NIA is seen by many as part of the ongoing crackdown by the Narendra Modi government on human rights defenders in the country.

On 14 April, Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha surrendered before the NIA on the order of Supreme Court of India.

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Nazia Erum
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