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Punished for speaking up in India

Report highlights judicial harassment of activists, targeting of journalists and crackdown on protesters

UCA News reporter, New Delhi

UCA News reporter, New Delhi

Updated: September 22, 2020 03:49 AM GMT
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Punished for speaking up in India

Security personnel watch a street during clashes between protesters and government forces in Srinagar on Sept. 17. CIVICUS is concerned about rights abuses in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. (Photo: AFP)

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The Indian government is using a variety of restrictive laws, including national security and counterterrorism legislation, to arrest and imprison human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and critics, global civil society alliance CIVICUS says in a new report.

More than a year into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term in office, the Sept. 22 report shows an increasingly repressive environment for freedom of expression, association and assembly. 

CIVICUS highlights the arrest, detention and prosecution of activists, the targeting of journalists and the unprecedented and brutal crackdown on protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act.

The alliance is also concerned about increasing rights violations in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.

Further, India’s slide towards authoritarianism has led to the conflation of dissent with anti-nationalism, often with disastrous results for human rights defenders and activists who have been subjected to damaging smear campaigns.

The activists profiled in the report, titled “Punished for speaking up: The ongoing use of restrictive laws to silence dissent in India,” represent a small fraction of the arbitrary arrests, prosecutions and imprisonments taking place across India, providing a snapshot of the challenges facing rights defenders.

The report also highlights a series of vaguely worded and overly broad laws being used by Indian authorities to deprive activists of bail and keep them in detention. These include the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which is India’s primary counterterrorism law; section 124A on sedition of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era relic; and administrative detention laws such as the National Security Act and the Public Safety Act, which applies only in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir

“The Indian government must stop using restrictive national security and counterterrorism laws against human rights defenders and critics. The authorities must also drop the baseless and politically motivated criminal charges against activists and release them immediately and unconditionally,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific civic space researcher.

“The laws are incompatible with India’s international human rights obligations as well as India’s constitution. Not only are the laws themselves inherently flawed, but their implementation makes it clear that they have become tools for judicial harassment rather than for preventing or addressing criminality.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of human rights defenders and critics, many of whom have underlying medical conditions or are at risk of contracting Covid-19 in overcrowded and unsanitary prisons.

CIVICUS is also concerned about the judicial harassment of individuals and journalists who criticize authorities’ handling of the pandemic.

“It is appalling that human rights defenders are locked up in overcrowded prisons and continuously denied bail despite calls by the UN to decongest prisons and release political prisoners during the pandemic,” said Benedict.

“Holding them at this time puts them at serious risk of contracting Covid-19 and adds another layer of punishment for these activists, who have been detained just for speaking up for human rights.”

Despite the hostile environment, human rights defenders and civil society organizations in  India are pushing back against oppression. The benefits of a vibrant civil society are tangible. This has been evident in civil society’s crucial response to the pandemic by providing vital help to communities in need, defending rights and holding governments accountable.

“As India’s political and economic influence increases, developments in the country are being closely followed by the global community. India’s quest to play a critical role on the international stage would be better served by committing to upholding democratic values and recognizing the validity of people’s struggles,” said Benedict.

The space for civil society in India was downgraded in December 2019 from “obstructed” to “repressed” by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic space in every country.

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