UN Human Rights Office Urges Release of Bhima Koregaon Activists 'at the Very Least on Bail'

Without naming 80-year-old poet Varavara Rao and 83-year old tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy, it noted that “some of the detainees are elderly and in poor health".

Geneva: The UN Human Rights office has expressed serious concern about the detention of human rights defenders in India, including those arrested in the controversial Bhima Koregaon case, and has urged the Indian authorities to release the detainees “at the very least on bail while they await trial”.

“We continue to be concerned about the situation of activists detained in India, including in the context of the Bhima Koregaon events,” the UN Human Rights office said on Friday, to a question posed by this journalist during the weekly UN press briefing.

Without naming the 80-year-old poet and human rights defender Varavara Rao, who is currently suffering from neurological problems, and the 83-year old tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy, who is afflicted with the advanced Parkinson’s disease, it noted that “some of the detainees are elderly and in poor health”.

Other human rights defenders arrested under the controversial Bhima Koregaon case include lawyers, writers and academics such as Shoma Sen, Sudha Bhardwaj, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Mahesh Raut, Vernon Gonzalves, Arun Ferreira, Anand Teltumbde, and Gautam Navlakha, among others. They are currently detained in the Taloja prison in Mumbai, one of the most crowded prisons in India.

“We encourage the authorities to release these individuals, at the very least on bail while they await trial – in accordance with the High Commissioner’s call to decongest prisons during the pandemic,” the office said.

It reiterated “the High Commissioner’s (Ms Michelle Bachelet) previous call on the Government to ensure no one is detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly – and to do its utmost, in law and policy, to protect India’s robust civil society.”

Also read: A List of Activists, Scholars and Scribes Whose Personal Liberty Remains at Judiciary’s Mercy

When asked to comment on the concerns expressed by the Human Rights Office, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Indra Mani Pandey offered no comments, on Saturday.

In October last year, Ms Bachelet expressed serious concern about “human rights, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and arrests of activists in India”, and appealed to the Narendra Modi government “to safeguard the rights of human rights defenders and NGOs, and their ability to carry out their crucial work on behalf of the many groups they represent.”

Ms Bachelet expressed “regret at the tightening space for human rights NGOs in particular, including by the application of vaguely worded laws that constrain NGOs’ activities and restrict foreign funding”.

“India has long had a strong civil society, which has been at the forefront of groundbreaking human rights advocacy within the country and globally,” the commissioner said.

The activists arrested in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence: Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves.

“But I am concerned that vaguely defined laws are increasingly being used to stifle these voices,” the commissioner said, The UN Human Rights commission oversees the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which India is a party.

“When a State invokes national security and protection of public order as a reason to restrict the rights to freedom of association, the State party must show the specific nature of the threat or risks posed, and limit its responses to those necessary and proportionate to address such threats or risk,” Ms Bachelet said.

The Commission observed in October that 1500 people were arrested because of their peaceful engagement in mass protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, with many human defenders being charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act – a law which has been widely criticised owing to its lack of conformity with international human rights standards.

“I urge the (Indian) Government to ensure that no one else is detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly – and to do its utmost, in law and policy, to protect India’s robust civil society,” the High Commissioner said in October.

Also read: UN Rights Chief Highlights Concern Over CAA, Anti-Muslim Violence, Police Force

She urged the government “to carefully review the FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) for its compliance with international human rights standards and to release people charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for simply exercising basic human rights that India is obligated to protect.”

According to a news report in The Telegraph on Saturday, the UN Special Rapporteur of Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, reprimanded the Indian government’s treatment of human rights activists such as Father Stan Swamy.

“India is a State which doesn’t properly protect human rights defenders,” Ms Lawlor said and added, “I am appalled by the treatment of human rights defenders such as Father Stan Swamy, who embodies solidarity.”

“The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and I had written to the Indian government in November raising concerns over the arrest of human rights activists including Stan Swamy in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case but have not yet received any response,” the Special Rapporteur said, suggesting that she is yet to receive a reply to her concerns, according to the report in the English daily.

In a separate development at the Bombay high court on Thursday, the noted civil liberties and human rights advocate Indra Jaising told the court that “if 80-year old Rao is kept undertrail during the trail with 200 witnesses, which is yet to commence, he will surely die in prison.”

According to a report in LiveLaw, Ms Jaising, who was arguing on behalf of Varavara Rao, said “to deny the right to health of a prisoner is an act of cruelty,” adding that “ no person above the age of 80 (years) should eve be kept in prison. What life imprisonment means for a person at 80 is vastly different from what it means for a 25-year-old.

As the nation celebrates its 71st anniversary of the Republic Day, the growing number of human rights violations during the last seven years, particularly in 202 during the COVID-19 pandemic, has become an eyesore globally.

Ravi Kanth Devarakonda is a senior journalist.