The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has listed Human Rights Martyr Fr Stan Swamy, human rights defender Khurram Parvez, journalist Siddique Kappan as Freedom of Religion or Belief victims. The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the US Congress to monitor, analyse and report on religious freedom. It has listed 1309 victims from across the world on its Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) Victims List.
The list is a detailed database of persons who have been imprisoned or detained in a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). According to USCIRF, a CPC is one that has either engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations of religious freedom. India has been recommended to the US State Department to be designated as a “country of particular concern” or CPC, for alleged religious freedom violations last year as well. On the list were Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam as CPC, along with India. These were named after USCIRF’s 2020 assessment, which was timed in anticipation of the State Department’s announcement of the CPC and Special Watch List (SWL) designations. The USCIRF had released an extensive factsheet detailing violations specified under the International Religious Freedom Act that “if perpetrated or tolerated by a foreign government, should cause the state department to designate the country as a CPC or place it on the SWL.”
India had been recommended for CPC designation in September 2020 as well by the US Congress-constituted federal body. However, when the State Department made its announcement of nations that were designated CPC in December 2020, India was missing from the list. In May this year, for the second year running, the USCIRF’s annual report recommended that India be designated as a “country of particular concern” or CPC. According to the 2021 annual report, released by Gayle Manchin, who heads the organisation, while 2020 was “challenging for most nations trying to balance public health concerns alongside the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief”, it has been recommended that the state department designate “Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan,” which were already on the State Department’s 2020 list “as well as four others—India, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam,” as “countries of particular concern.”
Now the three Indians have been added to the FORB victims list with details of their arrests and the status of their case.
Kashmir-based human rights activist Khurram Parvez was arrested in November 2021 after the National Investigation Agency (NIA) carried out searches at his residence and the office of J&K Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) in Srinagar. According to reports, Parvez’s family said that they received an arrest memo (case 30/2021) in which he was named. Parvez was taken for questioning by the officials who said they were from NIA, and his phone, laptop and a few books were also seized. His arrest sparked international outrage and concern.
On December 22, 2021, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for Parvez’s release saying, “We are concerned that one month after Mr. Parvez’s arrest, he is still deprived of liberty in what appears to be a new incident of retaliation for his legitimate activities as a human rights defender and because he has spoken out about violations.”
The USCIRF stated, “Human Rights organizations allege Parvez’s arrest is motivated by his work documenting human rights violations committed by authorities in Kashmir, a Muslim-majority area.”
Siddique Kappan is a Muslim journalist who is currently held in a jail in Uttar Pradesh since his arrest in October 2020. Kappan was arrested while on his way to Hathras, a district in Uttar Pradesh, to report on the brutal rape and murder of a teenage Dalit girl. The chargesheet against Kappan attempted to paint him as a journalist with a communal agenda. It said, “These writings of Siddique Kappan, to a great extent, can be classified as communal… During riots, taking the name of a minority and talking about events related to them can incite sentiments. Responsible journalists do not do such communal reporting. Kappan only and only reports to incite Muslims.”
The USCIRF details concerns over Kappan’s health status as he has been in jail well over a year. It said, “In addition to catching COVID-19 [in prison], Kappan reportedly suffers from depression, anxiety, and poor eyesight. He has reportedly been unable to receive adequate medical care.”
The most telling is the listing of Stan Swamy who was detained on terrorism charges and died while still imprisoned. He was 83 years old and on July 5, 2021, Swamy died in state custody reportedly from cardiac arrest after he suffered complications that followed his bout of Covid-19 in May 2021.