Twenty-one members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have called upon the Narendra Modi government to immediately release the 15 activists and academics jailed in the Elgar Parishad case, the 13 activists and students for protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and Kashmiri activist Khurram Parvez without conditions.
In a letter addressed to Modi and other top constitutional authorities, including vice-president and Rajya Sabha chairperson Venkaiah Naidu, Union home minister Amit Shah, Chief Justice of India NV Ramana and Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, the members expressed concern about the treatment of activists “detained without basis as reprisal for their human rights work” and targeted “under anti-terror laws and labelled as terrorists”.
The MEPs expressed concern about the “systemic use” of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA) 1967, to “quash dissent” and the alleged use of “illegal spyware” Pegasus against the Bhima Koregaon accused and the “planting of key digital evidence on their computers”.
In the letter, published by The Wire, the signatories express concern about the “safety of unjustly jailed defenders with emphasis” on the 15 accused in the Bhima Koregaon case. “We have followed—and written to you several times about—the Bhima Koregaon case since June 2018,” they wrote adding that the activists are “prominent individuals known for their commitment to the human rights of the most marginalised—particularly Dalit and Adivasi. They have been labelled as terrorists, subjected to deliberate smear campaigns and repeatedly denied bail despite their age and the risks posed by COVID-19”.
Expressing anguish at the death in custody of 84-year-old Bhima Koregaon accused Jesuit priest Stan Swamy, the MEPs wrote that it “would have been preventable had the octogenarian, suffering from advanced Parkinson’s, been given access to timely medical care and proper treatment”.
Though the MEPs welcomed the recent bail of co-accused Varavara Rao and Sudha Bharadwaj, they “remain gravely concerned that the risk to the remaining jailed defenders is heightened by their age, underlying health issues, and the pandemic, and by accounts that they have frequently been denied phone calls to family and lawyers”.
Mentioning the criticism of the draconian UAPA—which permits detention without charge for up to 180 days and denies bail—by sitting and retired Supreme Court Judges, the members said that its use “poses even greater risks to those with health issues”.
Deploring the Modi government’s silence on the concerns “raised locally and internationally” against the law, they expressed shock that not even Swamy’s death and the “serious medical issues faced by several others has prompted a change”. The use of the UAPA against activists “undermines the law’s original intent and serves only to punish defenders for their work without the need for trial and sentencing”, they further wrote.
The members also questioned the “role of the government and the credibility of the evidence against those jailed” following the allegations of use of the Israeli technology firm NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware against the accused and the “planting of key digital evidence” on their computers.
The MEPs are also “alarmed” that 13 out of the 18 anti-CAA protesters, “all from the minority Muslim community”, are still in prison. “We are particularly shocked at accounts that court intervention was required to prevent the police from leaking documents of the accused to the media in several instances and that many have complained in court of being denied basic essentials in jails, that Muslim detainees have alleged discrimination by jail staff, and that they are held in what amounts to solitary confinement.”
The members are “deeply worried” that Parvez continues to be in detention under the UAPA in “one of the most overcrowded and unsanitary prisons in the country for his documenting of rights violation” in Kashmir and “view his case as emblematic of the way the Indian government “continues to use the UAPA as a means of coercion to restrict human rights defenders’ fundamental freedoms in the country”.
The MEPs condemned in “the strongest terms the arrest and continued incarceration of human rights defenders as punishment for their human rights work” and are “alarmed by the overbroad use of the UAPA”.
Drawing the Centre’s attention to India’s endorsement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in September 2020 and the Human Rights Dialogue between India and EU, the signatories emphasised that “any deepening of EU-India ties will have to be ratified by the European Parliament. We expect that India shows its ability to be a rights-respecting partner in this endeavour, especially in the fight against terrorism. Progress on releasing the above-mentioned defenders will be key to confirming the EU can count on India in this area”.
The MEPs will follow up with the EU delegation and member states embassies in Delhi and request a discussion on the matter in the European Parliament.
Calling for the immediate and unconditional release of activists “detained without basis as reprisal for their human rights work”, the members wrote that “bail should be the norm and not the exception”. They also called upon the Modi government to ensure that the detained activists are treated as per the conditions set out in the ‘Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment’, adopted by UN General Assembly Resolution 43/173 on December 9, 1988.
The MEPs also demanded that laws, like the UAPA, widely “misused to silence human rights defenders” should be repealed or amended. The government should “immediately stop using such legislation to persecute and jail human rights defenders and quash peaceful dissent”, they wrote.
The signatories also demanded an investigation of the “use of malware like Pegasus to conduct surveillance of human rights defenders and hold those responsible accountable”.