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Release all political prisoners, end curbs on freedom of expression in Kashmir: Amnesty India

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Amnesty International India on Thursday called for the immediate release of all political prisoners marking the first anniversary of abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution bifurcating Kashmir into two separate union territories.

“Over the last year the Government of India has been systematically dismantling all avenues for justice for the people of Jammu and Kashmir,” stated Avinash Kumar, Executive Director, Amnesty International India. He discussed that high proportions of zero political representation, protracted internet restrictions, arbitrary use of stringent laws, verbal orders of detention and crippling of the local media – all of these have been continuously blocking voices from Kashmir and it is a year “since we have heard the people of Jammu and Kashmir speak.”

Last year on August 5 when Jammu and Kashmir was bifurcated into two separate union territories, the region came under the direct control of the central government and hence started the brutal crackdown of Kashmiri political leaders, journalists and activists. Simultaneously, an increasing number of administrative detentions and attacks on press freedom has been underreported in the absence of 4G mobile internet. Kumar highlighted these issues to demand “decongesting prisons and launch a prompt and independent investigation into the attacks on Kashmiri journalists.”

In a statement, Amnesty elaborated that interviews with journalists and resulted in gathering “corroborating evidence from news reports – both print and digital and Right to Information applications,” which led Amnesty India “to document the heavy-handed tactics of the Government of India in the region in a series of situation updates since August 5, 2019,” all of which has been compiled into a detailed report by the agency. It further acknowledged that the Government of India may have “legitimate security concerns which may merit reasonable restrictions on the right to freedom of expression” in certain circumstances, but “these restrictions must always be limited in duration and demonstrably proportionate as set out under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” (ICCPR), to which India is a state party.

However, in an absolute violation of India’s international obligations, the entire population of Kashmir “has been deprived of their right to freedom of expression and opinion through protracted communication restrictions since the last one year which has been compounded by a censored media, continuing detention of political leaders, arbitrary restrictions due to the pandemic with little to no redressal,” it stated. Amnesty also outlined that despite moderate ease of restrictions in 2020, the government’s near-total control over the information coming out of the region “was strengthened through the use of repressive laws such as the Jammu & Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA) and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).”

“The draconian media policy introduced by the government openly aims to create a sustained narrative on the functioning of the government in media by checking on anti-national activities, fake news and plagiarism has further extinguished independent media in the region,” said Amnesty. It mentioned that Amnesty has documented physical attacks on, harassment and intimidation of at least 18 journalists since August 5, 2019. In absence of reportage, merely gathering information from various digital and print media, Amnesty further found that “at least 70 political leaders – cutting across a wide political spectrum – were placed under administrative detention.” However, not a single case of detention of a political member belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was found in the record. While most of those arrested have been subsequently released, many continue to be in detention on the basis of verbal orders or repressive laws such as the PSA. This, it highlighted, is in complete violation of their fair trial rights guaranteed by the ICCPR and Indian Constitution.

Speaking about the release of political leaders, Amnesty stated that through the signing of bonds that restrict them from indulging in any political activity including making political speeches, “is also as problematic as their detentions,” because under international law, “political speech cannot be prohibited unless it constitutes a direct threat to public order.” Amnesty resonated that the Government’s “ruthless attempts” to create a public opinion of ‘normalcy’ while curbing the freedom of the independent press has “usurped the voice of the region.”

“A rights-respecting government must know that an end to the abuses in Jammu & Kashmir cannot come without the involvement of its people,” said Kumar. He also discussed that Kashmir has been “forced to transition from one lockdown to another, with government policies during the COVID-19 pandemic,” and these have further “marginalized its people by severely affecting their access to justice.” Between 2016 and 2019, Amnesty found that more than 300 habeas corpus petitions were filed against unlawful detentions before the Srinagar wing of the J&K High Court but as on August 4, 2020, only 11 habeas corpus petitions have been filed. This sharp fall may be attributed to the punitive emergency measures invoked by the government to curb the COVID-19 pandemic but also the lack of hi-speed internet required for uninterrupted online hearings, he informed. Further, closure of the State Human Rights Commission along with six other commissions, including the State Commission for Protection of Women and Child Rights, has further left the people of Jammu & Kashmir with absolutely no redressal for their human rights violations.

In the light of the above, Amnesty International India has demanded the Indian Government to restore 4G mobile internet and end the criminal investigations against journalists under PSA and UAPA while simultaneously withdrawing the new media policy. It has further called on the BJP government to immediately and unconditionally release all political leaders.