Activists allege intimidation of human rights defenders in India

Panel highlights use of “draconian laws to imprison and intimidate civilians” in India

A panel of eminent activists and lawyers have highlighted the issue of prisoners of conscience and alleged intimidation of human rights defenders in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Participating in a briefing hosted by the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) Wednesday in Washington DC, the group raised awareness about what it called “the draconian laws India uses to imprison and intimidate civilians.”

The panel included Vrinda Grover and Rashmi Singh, Supreme Court of India advocates, Dr. Waris Husain, adjunct professor at the Howard University School of Law and Suchitra Vijayan, Executive Director of the Polis Project.

Amnesty International defines a prisoner of conscience as “someone who has not used or advocated violence or hatred, but is imprisoned because of who they are, or what they believe (religious, political or other conscientiously held beliefs).”

In India today, a growing number of human rights defenders are being arrested for alarmingly frivolous charges, including for giving speeches encouraging peaceful dissent and putting up posters critical of the government, the panelists alleged.

Even more alarmingly, several activists in India have been detained under false or planted evidence, they said, according to an IAMC media release.

Read: Indian American Muslim Council asks Modi to stop persecution of Muslims (January 5, 2021)

“In some instances, the unauthorized and illegal monitoring of phones is used to collect sensitive private information that could be used to blackmail or publicly malign the character of human rights defenders,” said Dr. Husain.

“Once an individual is charged with a crime, often under India’s sweeping anti-terrorism laws, it is of little consequence whether or not the person is innocent,” he said.

“Whenever someone speaks against this current ruling administration, they are likely to face social pressure to quiet them and attack their dignity,” Dr. Husain added.

“When it comes to human rights defenders working for the Muslim community, they will be called terrorists; when it comes to defenders working to assist workers or students, they will be called drug addicts,” he alleged.

“And the prisoner is not the only target: the government is creating a chilling factor for any young person or student to refrain from human rights advocacy lest they be subject to the same Orwellian justice – or rather, injustice – system,” Dr. Husain said.

“Very often now in India, we hear the phrase ‘the process is the punishment.’ This is a sentence that [people] have suffered without due process or trial,” said Grover.

“In a country where the Modi regime enjoys a brute majority in parliament, the opposition today is provided by civil society. So targeting them should be understood in that context,” she said

“Draconian laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2019 and the Nation Security Act (NSA), 1980 are used rampantly by authorities to lock up people who express their dissent and question the policy or laws framed by the government,” Singh remarked.

“A state that sees its citizens as an existential threat is not a democracy. We must name the beast in order to fight the beast,” said Vijayan.

The IAMC has reiterated its call for the US State Department to declare India as a country of particular concern where religious freedom is severely at risk

It has also called on people of conscience around the world to speak out against the rapidly escalating situation with respect to human rights abuses in India.

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