Bastar Black Out: Human Rights Defenders Under Threat

Freedom of expression is being throttled in Chhattisgarh as the state cracks down on media and civil society, Amnesty International has stated in a report released in New Delhi today

For the last six months, the central Indian state has witnessed a sustained attack on journalists and human rights defenders. Conditions have been created where arbitrary arrests, threats to life, and organized hindrance to the work of journalists, lawyers, and other human rights defenders have led to a near total information blackout. The Entire 24 page report can be read here.
Local journalists investigating excesses by security forces have been arrested on trumped-up charges and tortured, while their lawyers have been threatened.  Abusive security laws have been deployed. And increasingly, Chhattisgarh is playing to a script of the bizarre.
Violations by the state have been accompanied by intimidation by those acting on its behalf. Local self-styled vigilante groups called the Samajik Ekta Manch (Social Unity Forum) and Mahila Ekta Manch (Women’s Unity Form), which appear to have the backing of the state police, have intimidated and harassed journalists and activists who express dissenting views. Among the members of these groups are people who were part of the banned Salwa Judum civil militia.
Most of these incidents have taken place in and around the Bastar region of the state, the epicenter of the long-drawn conflict between state forces and armed Maoist groups. Bastar has witnessed violence and counter-violence leading to massive human rights violations. Adivasi communities in particular have faced abuses from all sides. Against this backdrop, the silencing of civil society and the media may both enable and hide more abuses.

Aakar Patel, Executive Director, Amnesty International India, Bela Bhatia, Bastar-based independent researcher and activist,  Kamal Shukla, Editor, Bhumkal Samachar and Isha Khandelwal, lawyer, Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group addressed the press conference.

Extracts from the Amnesty Report:

Former Amnesty International Prisoners of Conscience and Adivasi activists, Soni Sori and her nephew Lingaram Kodopi have been raising issues of human rights abuses committed by both security forces and armed Maoist groups in Chhattisgarh for years. Soni Sori, a former schoolteacher, and Lingaram Kodopi, a journalist were arrested by the state police in October and September 2011, respectively, on allegations of acting as couriers for a corporate mining firm, Essar.

The police alleged they delivered Essar’s ‘protection money’ to armed Maoists groups to ensure the firm’s unhindered operations. A politician with the Aam Aadmi Party since 2014, Soni Sori has been acquitted in five cases filed against her, and Kodopi has been acquitted in one of two cases filed against him. Both of them alleged that they were tortured in police custody. On 29 October 2011, a government hospital examined Soni under a court order, and reported that two stones had been inserted in her vagina and one in her rectum, and that she had annular tears in her spine.

On the night of February 20, 2016, Soni Sori was travelling on a motorcycle with a colleague from Jagdalpur to her home in Geedam, Chhattisgarh, when three unidentified men on a motorcycle stopped them and threw a chemical substance on Soni Sori’s face. The activist said that the substance caused an intense burning sensation, temporarily blinding her. She was taken to a hospital in Jagdalpur, and later shifted to a hospital in New Delhi for treatment.

Soni Sori had been trying for weeks to file a complaint against a high-ranking police official in Bastar in a case involving an alleged extrajudicial execution in Mardum. She told Amnesty International India that her attackers on  February 20, had warned her not to continue her efforts.

Following the attack, Chhattisgarh authorities formed a special investigation team comprising state police officials. Soni Sori’s family alleges that the team has repeatedly called in Lingaram Kodopi and Soni Sori’s brother-in-law, Ajay Markam, for questioning, and pressured them to say that they had a role in planning the attack. Ajay Markam was called in for questioning on three occasions and claimed that he was detained for 30 hours in Jagdalpur police station after he was picked up on March 10, 2016. During this time, he says, he was tortured by the police. “I was beaten up and asked to confess to committing the attack on Soni. They hit me with their shoes everywhere on my body while I was lying on the ground,” Ajay Markam told Amnesty International India.

Soni Sori had been trying for weeks to file a complaint against a high-ranking police official in Bastar in a case involving an alleged extrajudicial execution in Mardum. Soni Sori told Amnesty International India that her attackers on February 20 had warned her not to continue her efforts.

A Timeline of Darkness

July 16, 2015
Journalist SOMARU NAG is arrested for allegedly being a Maoist sympathiser. He is held for alleged banditry, arson and criminal conspiracy under the Indian Penal Code and the Arms Act.
September 29, 2015
Journalist SANTOSH YADAV is arrested for allegedly associating with a terrorist organization and supporting and aiding terrorist groups. He is held under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, India’s principal anti-terror legislation, among other laws.
November 1, 2015
Adivasi women from Pedagelur village, Bijapur file an FIR alleging rape and sexual assault by members of security forces between 19 and 24 October. The women are assisted by local activists, including researcher BELA BHATIA and lawyers from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group. 

January 15,  2016
Adivasi women from Kunna village, Sukma file an FIR alleging sexual assault by members of security forces on 12 January. The women are assisted by local activists, including activist Soni Sori.
January 18, 2016
Adivasi women from Nendra, Bijapur try to file an FIR alleging rape and sexual assault by members of security forces between 11 and 14 January. The police initially refuse, but later register an FIR on 21 January after local activists hold a press conference.
February 8, 2016
Members of the Samajik Ekta Manch demonstrate outside the home of journalist MALINI SUBRAMANIAM in Jagdalpur. They accuse her of being a Maoist agent. Later that night, stones are thrown at her house.
February 18, 2016
Journalist MALINI SUBRAMANIAM is forced to leave her home in Jagdalpur after her landlord is pressured by the police to evict her.
February 18, 2016
Human rights lawyers SHALINI GERA and ISHA KHANDELWAL of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid group (JagLAG) are forced to leave their home in Jagdalpur after their landlord is pressured by the police to evict them.
February 20, 2016
BBC Hindi journalist ALOK PUTUL is forced to abandon an assignment in Bastar after receiving threats. A senior police official had communicated to the journalist that he preferred to spend time with ‘nationalist and patriotic’ journalists.
February 20, 2016
Activist SONI SORI is attacked and a chemical substance thrown at her face. Her nephew LINGARAM KODOPI later says that the police tried to pressure him to say that the attack was orchestrated by Soni Sori to gain sympathy. AJAY MARKAM, Soni Sori’s brother-in-law, says he was picked up by the police and tortured.
March 16, 2016
SAIBAL JANA, the chief physician at a hospital in Dalli-Rajhara, which he helped set up to treat underprivileged communities, is arrested for allegedly being ‘absconding’ in a criminal case registered in 1992. He is later released on bail.
March 21, 2016
Journalist PRABHAT SINGH is picked up by the police, tortured and then arrested under the Information Technology Act for a Whatsapp message making fun of a senior police official.
March 26, 2016
Journalist DEEPAK JAISWAL is arrested on a seven-month old complaint filed by a school principal for trespassing, obstructing public servants, and assaulting a public servant.
March 26, 2016
Members of the Mahila Ekta Manch demonstrate outside the home of researcher BELA BHATIA. They accuse her of being a Maoist agent, and demand that she leave the state.
March 30, 2016
A three-member fact finding committee of the Editors Guild of India concludes that there is a sense of fear among journalists in Bastar and the democratic space for journalism is shrinking.

Abuses By Security Forces 

Since 2015, there have been reports of three instances of large-scale sexual violence, physical abuse and looting of villages by security force personnel during search operations in the South Bastar region of Chhattisgarh.

On  November 1, 2015, three Adivasi women and a teenage girl registered a First Information Report alleging large-scale rape, assault and looting by security force personnel during search operations between 19 and 24 October 2015 in the villages of Pegdapalli, Pedagelur, Gundem, Burgicheru and Chinnagelur in Bijapur district. The women were aided by activists from the group Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, which included researcher Bela Bhatia.
The group quoted one of the survivors as saying: “They began chasing my hens, so I objected. ‘Why are you catching my hens? Do your own work,’ I said. At this, they hit me with a stick, blindfolded me and dragged me to the jungle where they raped me. I heard them say in Gondi they would kill me there itself.” It said that many of the women reported being chased out of their homes by security force personnel and beaten. Over a dozen women later filed statements about the violence. No arrests have been made or charges filed yet.
On April 5, 2016,
a team from the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes which looked into the allegations said that there was prima facie evidence of mass sexual violence, and the case was not being effectively investigated. The team asked for an impartial investigation, stating that an investigation carried out by the district police would not be fair as they had been involved in the search operations.
On January 15, 2016, six Adivasi women registered an FIR against security force personnel for sexual assault during search operations on 12 January in Kunna village and Pedapara in Sukma district. The women – accompanied by activist Soni Sori – reported the violence to a senior official in the district administration on 15 January, but an FIR was only registered later. The women said that security force personnel had stripped and beaten them. One woman said that she was dragged out of her house, and her husband and children taken to a security force camp. When she said that she had a small child, a policeman forcibly squeezed her breast. No arrests have been made or charges filed yet.
On January 18, 2016, 16 Adivasi women from Nendra village, including eight rape survivors, traveled to the Bijapur district headquarters to file an FIR against security personnel who allegedly raped more than a dozen women in Nendra during search operations between 11 and 14 January. The police recorded their statements, but refused to register an FIR in the absence of the Superintendent of Police. Isha Khandelwal, the women’s lawyer, said, “The women who were raped were not able to even walk properly. Despite that, they went to file an FIR in the district station, where the police officials refused to file an FIR unless the SP was present.”
Shivani Taneja, a member of the group Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression  who accompanied the victims, said, “While taking the statements of the affected women, a woman police official remarked in Gondi, “You are all feeding the naxalites and taking care of them. And now you’re coming here.” There is a bias against them continually because they come from Naxal affected areas.”
An FIR was finally lodged on January 21, 2016, after immense pressure from activists and civil society groups.  One of the women’s statements reads: “Two men caught hold of me and dragged me inside my house. They took off my clothes, tore my blouse and pressed my breasts. One policeman raped me and said, ‘We will burn down your houses. If it wasn’t daytime, we would have killed you.’”The personnel allegedly also raped or sexually assaulted other women, threatened and beat up villagers, and stole poultry, food and money. No arrests have been made or charges filed yet.

What is Common In All These Cases ? 

–     The allegations against security force personnel include sexual assault against women, physical assault and verbal abuse of villagers and looting of villagers’ homes.
–     In all the cases, the police refused to file an FIR at first, and only agreed to do so after a delay. Under Indian law, refusing to file an FIR in a case of sexual violence is a criminal offence.
–     All the FIRs were registered against unnamed security personnel. In the case of the Nendra incident, the victims had identified and named police personnel in their statements, but these names were not listed in the FIR.
–     No charges have yet been filed in any of these cases. It has been more than six months since the first incident in Bijapur district.




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