Front Line defenders criticizes repression of dissent and arrest of student activists

Even in the lockdown, the police has been on a spree, arresting student activists and other human rights leaders associated with the anti-CAA protests

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Life for most Indians has come to a standstill amid the nationwide lockdown put in place to curb the coronavirus. However, what has emerged during this period is that even in this grim situation, democratic and civil liberties are being violated by the Indian government as it blatantly goes around targeting and arresting Muslim student activists and other human rights defenders (HRDs) who were part of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests that raged across the country from December 2019 to February 2020.

Current police actions look like an evident attempt to demonize anti-CAA protests and suppress the cause, thus inciting a religious divide by shaming those who demanded their rights against putting on a pedestal, those, including the Delhi police, who took part in the open vilification of the minorities. There is also a villainous attempt made by the police to link all these HRDs to the communal violence that erupted in Delhi in February 2020.

Since January 28, 2020, according to Front Line Defenders, an organization that works with a specific aim of protecting rights activists, the police have carried out multiple arrests of people involved in organizing and participating in the protests against the CAA.

Currently under arrest are – women human rights defenders Safoora Zargar and Gulfisha Fatima and male human rights defenders Khalid Saifi, Meeran Haider, Shifa ur Rehman, Dr. Kafeel Khan and Sharjeel Imam. In addition, the Delhi police seized the mobile phone of woman human rights defender Kawalpreet Kaur.

The actions of the police are a direct portrayal of their repression of human rights work and free expression, especially to suppress dissent by minority voices. The police has shamelessly used the Covid-19 lockdown, ignoring directives by the Supreme Court to decongest jails, by arresting these activists, actions that point out to a nefarious and regressive State agenda.

Targeted Human Rights Defenders

On April 10, 2020, student and woman human rights defender Safoora Zargar was arrested by Delhi police for her participation in the anti-CAA protests. Zargar, a student of Jamia Milia Islamia (JMI) University and member of the media team for the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC) which organized anti-CAA protests in December 2019, is in the second trimester of her pregnancy and suffers from a urinary condition, which is likely to worsen in prison. After her arrest, she was granted bail by a lower court citing her pregnancy, health condition and the directives issued by the Supreme Court of India on decongestion of prisons during Covid-19. However, despite this, she was never released and was immediately re-arrested by the Special Crime Branch of the Delhi police under a new FIR. This FIR does not include her name and originally only contained charges under the Indian Penal Code. The FIR was later amended on 21 April 2020 to include the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which is non-bailable and guarantees her prolonged incarceration. While she remains in jail, there has been a vicious social media campaign against Safoora Zarga, including fake pornographic content.

On April 1, 2020, human rights defender, fellow JMI student and a member of the JCC, Meeran Haider was arrested by the Delhi police (Special Crime Branch). He has been charged with sedition as well as the UAPA under FIR 59/2020.  

On April 9, woman human rights defender Gulfisha Fatima was arrested under the same new FIR as Safoora Zargar. She was actively involved in the women-led protest in Seelampur in North East Delhi against the CAA, worked to raise awareness among local women about the CAA and is a strong voice for secular constitutional principles. She is currently being held under the UAPA and based on eyewitness accounts, there have been reports of fear of custodial torture on her.

On April 26, police arrested human rights defender and President of the alumni association of Jamia Milia Islamia, Shifa Ur Rehman under FIR 59/2020. Shifa Ur Rehman has been a vocal critic of the CAA, and stands accused of provoking or inciting the Delhi riots in February 2020 through his speeches.

On April 27, the Delhi police seized the phone of Kawalpreet Kaur, a young woman human rights defender and President of the All India Students Association for Delhi as part of an inquiry into the communal violence that ravaged Delhi in February 2020. The memo issued to the defender for the seizure cited several charges, including charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

Earlier, on February 26, 2020, Khalid Saifi, a HRD and social activist associated with United against Hate, who appealed for the protests to be carried out peacefully, was reportedly tortured by the police after his arrest.

On January 28 and 29, 2020 Sharjeel Imam, a student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Dr. Khafeel Khan, a medical doctor were arrested on January 28 and 29 January 2020 respectively, based on speeches they gave at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) against the CAA. Dr. Khafeel Khan is currently imprisoned under the National Security Act (NSA) while Sharjeel Imam is held under the UAPA, both without a realistic prospect of bail.

The police are making attempts to arrest these HRDs without little or no evidence, especially the FIR 59/2020 under which Safoora Zargar, Gulfisha Fatima and Shifa ur Rehmanwere charged, on basis of secret or confidential information given by an informant. This information cannot be traced, verified or contested and should not form the basis of any lengthy incarceration especially under the UAPA and NSA, say Front Line Defenders.

The organization in its statement said, “Anti-terror laws have historically been used against human rights defenders in India, most notably in the Bhima Koregaon cases and most recently to suppress anti-CAA protesters. The continued incarceration of these human rights defenders in the context of COVID-19 puts them at risk, whilst also violating global best practice and directives set by the Indian Supreme Court to decongest prisons during the pandemic.”

Front Line Defenders expresses its serious concern regarding the Indian authorities’ targeting of student human rights defenders, especially Safoora Zargar, who was kept in solitary confinement in Tihar Jail whilst pregnant and in need of medical care. Since the peaceful protests began, the police have targeted human rights defenders under regressive laws and have used other forms of harassment to suppress their work. Front Line Defenders believes that the unfair charges brought against Safoora Zargar, Gulfisha Fatima, Khalid Saifi, Meeran Haider, Shifa ur Rehman, Dr. Kafeel Khan, Sharjeel Imam and Kawalpreet Kaur are directly related to their work in the defence of human rights.

It is deeply concerned regarding the increased repression of human right defenders in India, particularly linked to the protests against the regressive CAA and it therefore calls on the authorities in India to cease all investigation and immediately and unconditionally release all those arrested.

Apart from these HRDs, the special cell of the Delhi police has issued notices to more than 50 members of the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC) for their alleged involvement in the anti-CAA protests. The stifling of voices and random witch hunting by the police is abhorrent, especially now than before, when courts are not working at full capacity and protestors will struggle for bail. This activity, is nothing else, but the intentional use of the government’s draconian powers to victimize people and undermine law to suppress dissent for their favour.

The entire statement by Front Line Defenders may be read below.


“To my utter shock, the police seized my phone citing inquiry into the Delhi violence”: Kawalpreet Kaur
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