In a statement published on June 26, several experts from the United Nations have called upon India to immediately release all the human rights defenders and activists who have been arrested for their anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests.
The statement notes that these defenders/activists, most of whom are students, were clearly arrested merely for their exercise of the right to denounce and protest against the CAA. The statement further observes that these arrests appear to give out a clear message that any criticisms against the government’s policies shall not be tolerated.
Further, the statement condemns the incarceration of Safoora Zargar, a pregnant student who was imprisoned for two months and kept in conditions equivalent to that of solitary confinement. She was denied regular contact with her family members and her legal representatives. She did not have adequate medical care or diet. She was finally granted bail in her sixth month of pregnancy on humanitarian grounds.
The statement reiterated that the CAA expedited and simplified the procedure of citizenship for people from several religious minorities from neighbouring countries, but the Act excluded Muslims. This was seen as a major setback to the secular fabric of and Constitutionalism in India. Hence, protests took place in many parts of India.
The statement specifically reports the arrest of 11 activists, including Meeran Haider, Gulfisha Fatima, Safoora Zargar, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Khalid Saifi, Shifa Ur Rehman, Dr. Kafeel Khan, Sharjeel Imam, Akhil Gogoi.
The UN experts stated that these arrests failed to maintain the necessary threshold for human rights obligations. Due process was not followed during arrests and detention. There were also reports of ill-treatment and torture.
“Authorities should immediately release all human rights defenders who are currently being held in pre-trial detention without sufficient evidence, often simply on the basis of speeches they made criticising the discriminatory nature of the CAA,” the experts said.
The statement mentions the dissimilarity in investigating incitement of violence by those who supported the CAA. Some CAA supporters were alleged to have chanted “shoot the traitors” at support rallies for the CAA.
The UN experts also flagged the issue of the police invoking counter terrorism or national security legislations, while using procedural police powers to deny bail to protesters and to charge them under legislations with heavy sentences.
“Although demonstrations ended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and India’s Supreme Court issued a recent order to decongest jails because of health concerns related to the pandemic, protest leaders continue to be detained. The reported spread of the virus in Indian prisons makes their immediate release all the more urgent,” the experts said.
The statement also declared that all the experts were in contact with the Government of India regarding these issues.