The spate of arrests and deliberate targeting of student activists continues in the country’s capital even as the country is under a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. Even after the Supreme Court issued a directive asking states to de-congest prisons in a bid to curb the transmission there, the Delhi Police seem to be doing everything in their power to crackdown on activists and ensure they remain under detention, not giving a thought to their health.
After Safoora Zargar, Meeran Haider, Gulfisha Fatima, Shifa-Ur-Rahman, Asif Iqbal Tanha, the police arrested Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal of the feminist collective Pinjra Tod for allegedly taking part in anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests at Jaffrabad in February.
Kalita and Narwal, both belong to the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), an institution which along with the Jamia Millia Islamia University has seen the wrath of the Delhi police and central government for fighting for their rights – be it protests against hike in fees, hostel curfews for women or opposing the CAA.
In a statement, Front Line Defenders, an organization working with the aim of protecting human rights defenders, said, “In defending the Constitution and protesting the CAA, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal are protesting against the systematic targeting of minority communities and the removal of legal and social safeguards aimed at protecting some of India’s most vulnerable groups.”
Explaining the details of the arrest of the two women activists, Front Line Defenders put forth an appeal to the authorities for their release.
The chronology of Kalita and Narwal’s arrest
On May 23, 2020, the Special Crimes Cell of the Delhi Police arrested Kalita and Narwal under FIR 48/2020 for their participating in the anti-CAA protests in Jaffrabad in North East Delhi in February. They were booked under Sections 186 (obstructing a public servant in discharge of public functions), 341 (wrongful restraint) and 353 (assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharge) of the Indian Penal Code.
On May 24, 2020, the District Metropolitan Magistrate they were produced before, granted bail to them after a special hearing that took place at the Mandoli Jail in which the judge noted that in protesting, Kalita and Narwal were only exercising their freedom of expression.
However, they were never released despite being granted bail and on May 26, 2020, the Delhi Special Crime Cell proposed for their remand for 14 days after filing another FIR against them. The new FIR 50/2020, contained serious charges including Sections 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder) and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the IPC, apart from offences under the Arms Act and Prevention of Destruction of Public Property Act. This FIR was filed even though the police failed to prove the earlier charges, only to keep them in prison at any cost. The hearing was held on 28 May but due to COVID-19, was held inside the jail premises, and the defenders had difficulty obtaining legal representation. The defenders were sentenced to a further 14 days in Tihar prison till June 11.
Arrests follow a similar pattern
Prior to Narwal and Kalita, Safoora Zargar, Meeran Haider, Umar Khalid, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Shifa-Ur-Rahman, Tahir Hussain (AAP Councilor) had been arrested under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Front Line Defenders notes that in each of the arrests, there is a disturbing pattern of including more serious charges – including under anti-terror laws – post arrest, to ensure continued incarceration, despite the risk of Covid-19.
The organization notes that the activists are facing prolonged detention as a direct reprisal to their peaceful human rights work and condemns the ongoing judicial harassment of these human rights defenders. It says that the arrests are a cause of concern as they are done with an aim to terrorize and silence the activists.
Appeal by Front Line Defenders
In light of this, the organization has urged the authorities in India to:
1. Immediately release Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal and remove all charges against the two defenders, including the two FIRs 48/2020 and 50/2020 under which they have been booked, as Front Line Defenders believes that they are being targeted solely as a result of their legitimate and peaceful work in the defence of human rights;
2. Cease the ongoing judicial harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act, especially through the use of anti-terror laws, and release all those currently held in jail;
3. Ensure that Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal and all human rights defenders who have been arrested due to their peaceful protests against the CAA are given the right to access legal representation, family members and to medical treatment where necessary in line with India’s national and international obligations;
4. Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in India are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals, and free of all restrictions including police and judicial harassment.
Now, media reports say Narwal has been booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for her alleged involvement in inciting the communal violence that took place in North East Delhi in February. Narwal has become the seventh person to be booked under the UAPA by the Delhi police.
Bail in one case, custody in another for two Pinjra Tod activists
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