The United Nations human rights experts on Friday called on India to immediately release human rights defenders who have been arrested for protesting against changes to the nation's citizenship laws.
"These defenders, many of them students, appear to have been arrested simply because they exercised their right to denounce and protest against the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), 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 experts said.
They particularly referred to the arrests of Meeran Haider, Gulfisha Fatima, Safoora Zargar, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Khalid Saifi, Shifa Ur Rehman, Dr. Kafeel Khan, Sharjeel Imam and Akhil Gogoi.
They noted that one of the most alarming cases concerns pregnant Delhi student Safoora Zargar, who was detained for over two months having allegedly been kept in conditions equating to solitary confinement, before being finally granted bail on 23 June 2020, in her sixth month of pregnancy, on humanitarian grounds.
It was said that many of the arrests were simply on the basis of speeches made against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019.
"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 experts 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.
"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.
They are in contact with the Government on this matter.
The experts included Ms. Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Ms. Leigh Toomey (Chair-Rapporteur), Ms. Elina Steinerte (Vice-Chair), Mr. José Guevara Bermúdez, Mr. Seong-Phil Hong, Mr. Sètondji Adjovi (Working Group on Arbitrary Detention); Mr. David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule,Special Rapporteur on the rights to peaceful assembly and of association; Mr. Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues; Ms. E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism; Mr.Ahmed Shaheed The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Ms. Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism; Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Read the full statement here.