United Nations urges India to release anti-CAA protest leaders

Asif Iqbal Tanha is among the many students and rights activists who were active in anti-CAA protests arrested and charge-sheeted in connection with ‘the conspiracy behind Delhi riots’ while India was in lockdown. Photo: Shakeeb KPA/Maktoob

United Nations experts on Friday called on India to immediately release human rights defenders who have been arrested for protesting against changes to the nation’s citizenship laws.

“These defenders, many of them students, appear to have been arrested simply because they exercised their right to denounce and protest against the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), and their arrest seems clearly designed to send a chilling message to India’s vibrant civil society that criticism of government policies will not be tolerated,” the experts said.

United Nations urged the Indian government to release the jailed anti-CAA activists and student leaders include Meeran Haider, Gulfisha Fatima, Safoora Zargar, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Khalid Saifi, Shifa Ur Rehman, Dr. Kafeel Khan, Sharjeel Imam, and Akhil Gogoi.

All except Sharjeel Imam, Akhil Gogoi, and Dr. Kafeel Khan were arrested and charge-sheeted in connection with ‘the conspiracy behind Delhi pogrom while India was in lockdown. The Delhi violence is widely acknowledged to have been sparked by incendiary comments made by Kapil Mishra, a BJP leader, about Muslims peacefully protesting against ‘anti-Muslim and unconstitutional’ citizenship law. Video evidence and witness accounts pointed to police allowing Hindu mobs to roam the streets freely to target the Muslim community. Rights organizations and opposition parties in India issued different statements calling for the release of anti-CAA activists who were arrested under ‘false accusations by Delhi Police.’

“Many of the 11 individual cases include serious allegations of human rights violations, several relating to due process failings during arrest and detention, as well as allegations of torture and ill-treatment,” the UN experts’ statement reads.

“One of the most alarming cases concerns pregnant Delhi student Safoora Zargar, who was detained for over two months having allegedly been kept in conditions equating to solitary confinement, denied regular contact with her family and legal representative and having not been provided adequate medical care or diet,” UN experts said.

She was finally granted bail on 23 June 2020, in her sixth month of pregnancy, on humanitarian grounds.

According to Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the CAA provides expedited and simplified access to citizenship for people from specific religious minorities from several neighboring countries but it excludes Muslims. Its adoption in December 2019 provoked nationwide protests by Indians from diverse faiths – including Hindus – who believe it violates the secular foundations of India’s constitution.

“Authorities should immediately release all human rights defenders who are currently being held in pre-trial detention without sufficient evidence, often simply on the basis of speeches they made criticizing the discriminatory nature of the CAA,” they said.

The experts also highlighted their concern that the authorities’ response to the protests seemed discriminatory. It appears they have not similarly investigated allegations of incitement to hatred and violence made by CAA supporters, some of whom are reported to have chanted “shoot the traitors” at counter-rallies.

The experts further flagged their concern that authorities were invoking counter-terrorism or national security legislation and using procedural police powers, to deny bail to protesters and issue charges carrying heavy sentences.

“Although demonstrations ended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and India’s Supreme Court issued a recent order to decongest jails because of health concerns related to the pandemic, protest leaders continue to be detained. The reported spread of the virus in Indian prisons makes their immediate release all the more urgent,” the experts said.

UN experts also said that they are in contact with the Indian Government on this matter.

The UN experts include Ms. Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Ms. Leigh Toomey (Chair-Rapporteur), Ms. Elina Steinerte (Vice-Chair), Mr. José Guevara Bermúdez, Mr. Seong-Phil Hong, Mr. Sètondji Adjovi (Working Group on Arbitrary Detention); Mr. David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule,Special Rapporteur on the rights to peaceful assembly and of association; Mr. Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues; Ms. E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism; Mr.Ahmed Shaheed The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Ms. Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism; Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment