Kashmiri Human Rights Activist Headed for UN Meet Detained at Delhi Airport

Khurram Parvez was stopped by immigration officers despite possessing an invitation and visa, detained for 90 minutes and told that orders had come from the Intelligence Bureau

New Delhi: Khurram Parvez, whose Facebook page describes him as a “Human Rights Defender, working in world’s most militarised occupation – Kashmir”, was on Wednesday denied permission by the authorities at Indira Gandhi International Airport to leave for Geneva to attend the ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Council.

Parvez, who is also chairperson of the Asian Federation Against involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) and program coordinator of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) was stopped from proceeding further at the airport immigration counter at around 1:30 am. According to JKCCS president Parvez Imroz, who was also part of the delegation, the officials informally told Parvez that they were under instructions from the Intelligence Bureau not to allow him to leave. Parvez told the media that the immigration officer had even stamped his boarding pass but “subsequently disallowed me to board the flight”.

Though the legality is questionable, the denial of travel rights has become a weapon the Narendra Modi Government has used before to clamp down on dissent and criticism. In June 2015, during the stand-off between the home ministry and global environmental watchdog Greenpeace, an international member of the organisation Aaron Gray-Block, who was travelling from Sydney on an Australian passport was barred from entering India at Bangalore airport despite having a valid business visa and all necessary documents.

Prior to that, in January 2015, Greenpeace India activist Priya Pillai was prevented from travelling to London, where she was scheduled to make a presentation to the Indo-British All-Party Parliamentary Group regarding her campaign with local communities in Mahan, Madhya Pradesh. Pillai subsequently challenged the government’s authority to prevent her from travelling and won her case, with the Delhi high court criticising the government for exceeding its authority.  “A person falling in the category of an anti-national element,” said Justice Rajiv Shakdher, using the label the home ministry invoked against Pillai, “can only be that person who projects a present and imminent danger to the national interest. Travelling abroad and espousing views, without any criminal intent of the kind adverted to above, cannot, in my opinion, put Ms Pillai in the category of an anti-national element.”

Like Pillai, Parvez too was stopped despite having all the relevant travel documents. According to Imroz, “Parvez was detained for one and a half hours, and subsequently told that due to orders from the Intelligence Bureau, he cannot travel to Geneva. Despite repeatedly asking for written orders that he was forbidden to leave the country, he was denied the same. And despite repeatedly asking for reasons, grounds or the basis for the decision to disallow his travel, he was not provided the same. He was only orally informed that immigration officers had instructions that he was not to be ‘arrested’, but that he should not be allowed to leave the country.”

Asked why only one member of the Kashmir civil society delegation was prevented from embarking for Geneva, Imroz said it appears that Khurram Parvez is not being allowed to travel because he has been “highlighting violations of human rights”.

Terming the refusal of permission to leave the country for the UN meet as an “attempt to criminalise the human rights campaign and documentation work which JKCCS has been involved in for the last several years,” Imroz described the travel ban as “a part of the widespread and systematic violence that the people of Jammu and Kashmir continue to face.”

Over the last 68 days, he said, “fundamental rights have been curtailed through the imposition of continuous curfews and restrictions” while over 80 civilians have been killed and over 10,000 injured in action by the security forces.

According to government statements, over 4,000 security force personnel have also sustained injuries due to the violent protests that have shaken the valley since the July 8 killing of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.

“The Indian state seeks to isolate the people of Jammu and Kashmir at all costs, and disallowing human rights activists access to the UN is a part of this attempt to isolate and ensure impunity for violence and denial of human rights,” he claimed.

Parvez was scheduled to visit Geneva from September 14 to 24 for the 33rd UNHRC session. He was part of a delegation comprising Mary Aileen Diez Bacalso, Parvez Imroz, Kartik Murukutla and Ron de Vera.

The Kashmiri members of the delegation, besides attending the UNHRC session, were also scheduled to brief UN bodies, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights regarding the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly over the past two months.

JKCCS is also scheduled to participate in India’s Universal Periodic Review, a four year review process of UN states by the Human Rights Council, to be held in April/May 2017. For the purpose, it has already submitted a report on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir as a part of that review process.

Imroz said despite India having staked a claim to a permanent seat at the UN Security Council and being a member of the UN Human Rights Council, “in absolute disregard to its own laws, it denies Kashmiris basic fundamental rights”.

Therefore, the JKCCS president urged the international community, particularly the UN, to “condemn the attempts of the Indian state to deny the people of Jammu and Kashmir their right to resist, including through human rights work, and urgently intervene through a UN fact-finding mission in Jammu and Kashmir”.

At the time of publication, there has been no explanation, informal or formal, from the ministry of home affairs about the basis on which Parvez was not allowed to board his flight.

The Priya Pillai test

Ruling in favour of Priya Pillai’s right to travel last year, Justice Rajiv Shakdher of the Delhi high court had said that the right of free speech and expression “necessarily includes the right to criticise and dissent.”

“Criticism by an individual may not be palatable; even so, it cannot be muzzled. Many civil right activists believe that they have the right, as citizens, to bring to the notice of the state the incongruity in the … policies of the state. The state may not accept the views of the civil right activists, but that by itself, cannot be a good enough reason to do away with dissent,” his judgment noted.

Citing Supreme Court judgments on the matter, Justice Shakdher agreed that the right to travel abroad is a fundamental right, “a second generation right which flows from the right to life and personal liberty conferred on the citizens, under Article 21, which can be taken away only by procedure, as established in law.”

The home ministry had stopped Pillai on the basis of a look-our circular (LOC) mandated by an office memorandum (OM) that empowered the government to act against “counter intelligence suspects, terrorists, anti-national elements, etc. in larger public interest”. On the basis of judicial precedent, Justice Shakdher ruled that “views held, by any section or class of people, by itself, cannot be characterised as anti-national activities”. The meaning of the term “anti-national element” in the OM allowing an LOC to be issued preventing a citizen from travelling abroad could only be construed to mean a person who “endangers the very existence of the state or in the very least, I would think, threatens the life and limb of its citizens.”

In Parvez’s case, it is not clear if the immigration officials at Delhi airport acted on the basis of an LOC. The existence of an LOC against Pillai was not disclosed to her at the time either; she subsequently learned of its existence from official leaks to the media.