UN Special Rapporteur asks India to free 16 Human Rights Defenders accused in Bhima-Koregaon case
By TCN News
The Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), an advocacy organization dedicated to safeguarding India’s pluralist and tolerant ethos, has launched a report titled, “Crushing Dissent: 2021 Status Report on Human Rights in India,” detailing human rights abuses in India.
At the launch of this report, UN Special Rapporteur Ms. Mary Lawlor called upon the Indian government to immediately release 16 human rights defenders who have been imprisoned on charges of terrorism in the ‘Bhima-Koregaon Case’.
“These people should not be in jail. They are our modern-day heroes and we should all be looking to them and supporting them and demanding their release,” Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, said on Thursday.
Along with Father Stan Swamy, the octogenarian Jesuit priest against whose “arbitrary detention” in this case she has already written to the Indian Government, Ms. Lawlor said 15 others jailed in the same case must also be released.
Ms. Lawlor while read out the names of the imprisoned rights activists who have worked to uphold the rights of the others should be acknowledged and they are Surendra Gadling, Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Mahesh Raut, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Fereria; Supreme Court lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj; authors Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde; poet Varvara Rao; academicians Hany Babu and Shoma Sen; and theater artistes Ramesh Gaichor, Sagar Gorkhe and Jyoti Jagtap.
The so-called Bhima-Koregaon case refers to violence at a public meeting called three years ago by low-caste Hindus at a village known as Bhima-Koregaon in Maharashtra state. Several civil rights investigations have established that upper caste Hindus allied with India’s ruling party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP, carried out the violence. Police have, however, targeted human rights defenders, who deny their involvement.
Ms. Lawlor, whose three-year term as UN Special Rapporteur began last May, also called out the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), under which the Bhima-Koregaon accused have been charged, as among the “several prominent pieces of legislation that would appear on paper and in practice to undermine rights contained in the covenant and the work of human rights defenders.”
Amendments to the UAPA made in 2019, which granted “greater powers” to designate individuals as terrorists “despite the definition of a terrorist act not being precise or concrete,” failed to “comply with the principles of legal certainty,” Ms. Lawlor said.
“This has opened up the Act, which was already being used to target human rights defenders, to greater abuse. In 2020, it continued to be applied against human rights defenders with the extremely damaging effect of conflating the defense of human rights with terrorist activities,” Ms. Lawlor said, adding, there was “a very concerning deterioration of the environment for defending human rights” in India.
Saying that India’s human rights “situation is very serious,” Ms. Lawlor said she sent “six communications” to the Indian Government since May to “convey our concerns on human rights issues”. India had responded to just one. In June she wrote to the Indian Government raising concerns over the arrest of 11 human rights defenders for protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. “However, this communication has gone unanswered.”
She added: “Defending human rights is not terrorism. We need to get that message out over and over again.”
Noted human rights defender Teesta Setalvad said “among human rights defenders who are today incarcerated, besides those mentioned by Mr. Lawlor, we have a list of almost 23 very young and dynamic human rights defenders incarcerated in post February 2020 anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi. Among the 23, almost 19 happened to be young Muslims activists, who actually came into the forefront of leadership to resist the draconian citizenship Amendment Act. These young activists were deliberately targeted by the state because of their clarity, courage and determination.
“The lower caste (the untouchables) have been singularly targeted for thousands of years and subjected to othering and discrimination by the dominant caste. Then, it is the Muslim community who is facing discrimination and marginalization for the last 40 years. And since the 1990s, Indian Christian community has also been subject to this kind of othering. added Teesta.
The Indian Government had arrested Father Stan Swamy only because he had worked for four decades for the uplift of the poor tribal people in Jharkhand state, Father Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit priest and a human rights defender, said. Fr. Swamy became an obstacle for successive governments who, “in collusion with vested interest, especially those who deplete the forests of the precious resources, like the mining mafia, the timber merchants,” wanted to wrest control of the forests from the tribal people.
“Fr. Swamy was fighting for the release of more than 3000 tribal youth, struggling for their rights, accompanying them in their legal battles, and so on.”
Former Australian Senator Lee Rhiannon said “the notion that India is a great secular democracy has become a cloak to conceal the extent of the injustice.” The foundation on which is India’s judiciary, parliamentary and education systems have been “extensively eroded” as Mr. Modi’s government’s “passing discriminatory laws, neutralizing judges and cultivating a BJP controlled police force is at an advanced stage.”
IAMC National General Secretary Mohammad Jawad said “This exhaustive report’s coverage of all the aspects — from the sedition laws and hate speech, to national security legislation and the criminalization of dissent, from the questions on the independence of the judiciary to the dilution of labor laws and the universal health policies — demonstrates how the Modi government is set to undo decades of positive and progressive work in India.”
IAMC will share the 2021 Human Rights report, “Crushing Dissent”, with members of US Congress, the White House, the Department of State, the National Security Council, think-tanks, the US academia and research community and the civil rights activists and NGOs, he added.