Rights Groups Seek Probe Into Torture of Tamil Nadu Activist

Environmental activist Piyush Sethia has alleged that he was tortured in police custody on multiple occasions, leading to a fracture and tissue damage in his leg.

Piyush Sethia. Credit: Twitter

Piyush Sethia. Credit: Twitter

New Delhi: The Indian arms of global rights organisations Greenpeace and Amnesty International have demanded an impartial probe into the arrest and custodial torture of civil rights activist Piyush Sethia, who calls himself Piyush Manush. Sethia was arrested along with two other members of the Salem Citizens Forum on July 8 for protesting against the construction of a rail overbridge at Mulluvadi Gate in Salem, Tamil Nadu.

Greenpeace India and Amnesty International India have charged that Sethia was repeatedly tortured in the Salem central prison. They claimed that Sethia, who was in judicial custody from July 8 to July 20, filed a complaint with the Salem police on July 27, alleging that he had been tortured on multiple occasions in prison.

“On one occasion, he said, several jail personnel forced him to lie down with his face turned to the ground, pressed down with their boots on his legs, and hit him with batons on the soles of his feet. A medical examination conducted on 23 July by a private hospital stated that the activist had suffered a fracture in his right foot and tissue damage in his left foot,” the two organisations pointed out.

“The circumstances under which Piyush Sethia and other activists were arrested, and the disturbing reports of his torture in custody, must be immediately investigated,” said Aakar Patel, executive director at Amnesty International India, adding that “the central government needs to ensure that torture is recognised as a specific crime in Indian law and ratify the UN Convention Against Torture.”

Sethia was arrested along with Eesan Karthik and Muthu Selvan for protesting against the construction of a railway overbridge. The NGO had claimed that the affected families had not been consulted about the construction and the land had not been acquired lawfully.

All the three activists were arrested for “wrongful restraint”, “assault or criminal force to deter a government servant from discharging official duty” and “criminal intimidation”. Following their arrest, the Citizens Forum had stated that their being charged under non-bailable sections was not justified.

The organisation had subsequently also launched a campaign on change.org to seek Sethia’s release. The campaign has received the support of nearly 16,000 people.

While Karthik and Selvan were released on bail on July 14, Sethia was released on conditional bail on July 20, by which time he had allegedly been severely tortured.

Reacting to the highhandedness of the authorities, Ravi Chellam, executive director of Greenpeace India said, “Persecution of activists in this manner suggests an implicit decision to prioritise profit over people, and ‘development’ over socio-environmental concerns. The shrinking of the space for dissent in India is a worrying trend and one that civil society must come together to resist”.

He added that “if authorities seek to silence community opposition to ill-conceived development projects, we must find ways to amplify these voices and ensure that citizens’ concerns are adequately addressed”.

The organisations said that on July 23, the National Human Rights Commission had also issued a notice to the Tamil Nadu government to respond within two weeks to the allegations raised by Sethia, which it said were “serious in nature and amount to a human rights violation”.

They said while the deputy inspector general of police, Vellore range, is investigating the case, he could not be reached despite several attempts. The global rights organisations said “torture violates Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty binding on India. India also signed the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1997, but is yet to ratify it. India’s Supreme Court has ruled that the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Indian constitution includes the right to be free from torture and other ill-treatment.”