“We are being punished by the law,” say Kashmiris to Amnesty International

Photo: Mubashir Hassan/Maktoob

In the three years since 5 August 2019, the Indian government has drastically intensified the repression of the people of Jammu & Kashmir, including journalists and human rights defenders by subjecting them to multiple human rights violations, said Amnesty International in a newly released report.

The new report, “We are being punished by the law”: Three years since of abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir, documents how civil society at large and journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders in particular have faced relentless interrogations, arbitrary travel bans, revolving door detentions and repressive media policies while blocking access to appeals or justice in courts and human rights bodies.

The violations by India include restrictions on rights to freedom of opinion and expression; to liberty and security of person; to movement; to privacy; and to remedy and access to justice, according to the global rights watchdog. The authorities have committed these violations with absolute impunity, Amnesty said.

“People of Jammu & Kashmir are considered with utmost suspicion, including the most powerful people – whether it’s bureaucracy, politicians, intellectuals, or media. Everybody is treated as someone who needs to be subjugated or needs to be shown the right path. For heaven’s sake, do people of Jammu and Kashmir have no agency of their own? If Jammu & Kashmir is an integral part of India, so are its people,” a senior journalist who has faced harassment from the Indian authorities to Amnesty.

Through the interviews conducted by Amnesty International and review of media sources, the organisation recorded the details of at least 60 instances in which journalists and human rights defenders have been subjected to interrogations, criminal investigations, arbitrary arrest, detention, and surveillance since August 2019.

“The Indian government claims their actions are a legitimate response to “terrorism”. However, their actions cannot be considered a proportionate response to the purported threat of terrorism and so constitute human rights violations. While national security is recognised by international human rights law as a legitimate justification for the restriction of certain human rights, such restrictions are strictly circumscribed,” read the report.

The national security cannot be used as a pretext for imposing vague or arbitrary limitations and may only be invoked when there exist adequate safeguards and effective remedies against abuse, said Amnesty.

Amnesty International is calling on the Indian government to immediately release those arbitrarily detained under administrative detention and other repressive laws and ensure that they are tried promptly and fairly in a regular court.

The government must also drop all politically motivated charges against journalists and human rights defenders arrested for exercising their freedom of expression and remove the unjust barriers placed on the people of Jammu & Kashmir from expressing themselves freely and provide them access to meaningful remedy and justice, it urged the authorities.

“The Indian government must also take steps to increase the representation and participation of the people of Jammu & Kashmir in decision-making processes. The government’s efforts to put in place unlawful surveillance measures, arbitrary detention, and restrictions to freedom of expression and simultaneously conceal its actions
in Jammu & Kashmir clearly violate international human rights law. Accordingly, the international community must hold the Indian government accountable for the human rights violations it has been committing with absolute impunity in Jammu & Kashmir by calling for an immediate and independent investigation into such violations – not least because it reflects so poorly that a member of the Human Rights Council is acting with such impunity,” the report concluded.

“For three years now, civil society and media in Jammu and Kashmir have been subjected to a vicious crackdown by the Indian government, which is determined to stifle dissent using draconian laws, policies and unlawful practices in their arsenal,” said Aakar Patel, chair of the board of Amnesty International India.

“By harassing and intimidating critical voices, authorities are targeting all credible, independent sources of information in and about Jammu and Kashmir. There is a silence achieved on all dissent through heavy handed repression which has spread fear and uncertainty in the region.”

Amnesty International found that in the last three years, at least six individuals including journalists, human rights activists and academics were stopped from travelling abroad (despite having requisite travel documents) in violation of their right to freedom of movement through arbitrary executive actions not backed by any court order or warrant or even a written explanation.

The Indian government has total control on information coming of out of the region after passing restrictive media policies such as the 2020 Revised Media Policy and 2021 Film Policy. After an initial six-month internet shutdown, the Indian authorities still often suspend internet services in various parts of Kashmir often without any prior notice. In addition, the sudden forced closure of the Kashmir Press Club in 2022 by the Indian government was a big blow to the already disintegrating media pool.

According to the data gathered by Amnesty International, at least 27 journalists have been arrested and detained by the Indian authorities since 5 August 2019.

Several journalists including Fahad Shah, Aasif Sultan and Sajad Gul have been subjected to ‘revolving door’ arrests. In a continuing pattern, they have been arrested under one law, granted bail by the court, and then re-arrested almost immediately under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) – India’s primary anti-terror law in Jammu & Kashmir, keeping them perpetually detained.

A lawyer who handles such cases in southern Kashmir told Amnesty International, “Since 2016, the increased malicious use of anti-terror laws makes it difficult for people to secure bail. [It] provides more flexibility to the police in keeping the person in pre-trial detention for 180 days even though the… chargesheets filed by the police [reads] nothing less than a fiction book or novel.”

Amnesty International reviewed 1346 cases available on the website of the High Court of Jammu & Kashmir. It found that by 1 August 2022, the number of writ petitions have increased by 32%, indicating an increase in unlawful detention in the last three years. Amnesty International also reviewed the data published by National Crime Record Bureau and found that there has been a 12% increase in the use of UAPA in Jammu & Kashmir since 2019. This emerging trend of using the draconian UAPA in addition to the much-abused Public Safety Act (PSA) is also evidenced by an analysis of information on the High Court’s website.

Other intimidation tactics include malicious investigations and raids by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), and the Enforcement Directorate.

A senior editor of a prominent daily newspaper told Amnesty International, “When the NIA raids a journalist’s house or the Enforcement Directorate threatens an editor with false cases, it does not only impact that journalist or editor but the entire community. They fear they can be next. It has become impossible for journalists to continue their work independently.”

In 2020, the NIA conducted multiple raids on the residences and offices of well-known human rights defenders like Khurram Parvez, three of his associates and Parveena Ahanger. Raids have also been carried out on the offices of the newspaper Kashmir Times,NGOs Athrout and GK Trust and on the residence of Agence France-Presse’s Kashmir correspondent Parvez Bukhari.

Amnesty International spoke with Khurram Parvez’s wife, Sameena after his subsequent arrest. She recounted, “The NIA officials seized the (personal) phones of everyone (in the joint family) including our domestic help along with office laptops. In total, there were 21 devices… they kept asking about some of the names in his (old) diary and on a bunch of visiting cards. How can that be used to charge Khurram under India’s anti-terror law and accuse him of waging a war against the country?”

Raids without a legal basis constitute a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression, as enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The people of Jammu & Kashmir, in particular the Hindu minority community have faced unlawful killings by armed groups which have recently increased, said Amnesty.

The government has a duty under international law to take measures to protect civilians and to bring to justice those who order, plan and carry out such attacks or killings in a fair trial without resorting to the death penalty, said Amnesty.

“The government’s use of unlawful measures and unjust barriers impeding various rights in the region must be removed without further delay. The Indian authorities must end the long-drawn repression in Jammu and Kashmir immediately,” said Aakar Patel.