The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has exhorted India to immediately release activists Akhil Gogoi, Devangana Kalita and human rights defender, who have been arrested for protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
“These defenders, many of them students, appear to have been arrested simply because they exercised their right to denounce and protest against the CAA and their arrest seems clearly designed to send a chilling message to India’s vibrant civil society that criticism of government policies will not be tolerated,” the UNHRC on Saturday said in a statement from Geneva.
The experts who jointly issued the statement include Special Rapporteurs Mary Lawlor, David Kaye, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Fernand de Varennes, E Tendayi Achiume, Ahmed Shaheed, Fionnuala D Ní Aoláin and Nils Melzer.
The CAA provides expedited and simplified access to citizenship for people from specific religious minorities from several neighbouring countries, but it excludes Muslims.
Its adoption in December 2019 provoked nationwide protests by Indians from diverse faiths – including Hindus – who believe it violates the secular foundations of India’s Constitution.
Many of the 11 individual cases include serious allegations of human rights violations, several relating to due process failings during arrest and detention, as well as allegations of torture and ill-treatment.
“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,” they said.
The statement specifically referred to the arrest of 11 activists – Meeran Haider, Gulfisha Fatima, Safoora Zargar, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Natasha Narwal, Khalid Saifi, Shifa Ur Rehman, Dr Kafeel Khan, Sharjeel Imam besides Akhil Gogoi and Devangana Kalita.
They also highlighted their concern that the authorities’ response to the protests seemed discriminatory. It appears they have not similarly investigated allegations of incitement to hatred and violence made by CAA supporters, some of whom are reported to have chanted “shoot the traitors” at counter-rallies.
The experts further flagged their concern that authorities were invoking counter-terrorism or national security legislation, and using procedural police powers, to deny bail to protesters and issue charges carrying heavy sentences.
The experts are in contact with the Government on this matter, the statement added.