HomeNewsIndian govt accused of using COVID-19 lockdown to arrest activists, silence dissent

Indian govt accused of using COVID-19 lockdown to arrest activists, silence dissent

A prominent rights group has urged Indian authorities to drop “politically-motivated charges” against people who were peacefully protesting against citizenship policies that discriminate against Muslims and release them from custody.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said June 15 that Indian police have used “draconian anti-terrorism, sedition, and other laws against students, activists, and other government critics, but have not acted against violence by supporters of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).”

In a statement, HRW said that in some cases, the police filed new charges after activists were granted bail to ensure that they remained in custody, placing them at further risk during the COVID-19 outbreak in overcrowded prisons with inadequate sanitation, hygiene, and access to medical care.

“The Indian authorities have used the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown to arrest activists, silence dissent, and deter future protests against discriminatory policies,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director. “Instead of addressing past police abuse, the authorities seem to be trying their best to add to the list.”

In December 2019, the BJP-led government adopted the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which for the first time in India makes religion a basis for citizenship.

The CAA provides a path to citizenship for Buddhist, Christian Hindu, Jain, Parsi, and Sikh practitioners, but not Muslims, fleeing persecution from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

In response, protests broke out throughout the country following fears that the act, together with a planned nationwide verification process to identify “illegal migrants,” could threaten the citizenship rights of millions of Indian Muslims.

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Violence around the protests broke out in Delhi on Feb. 24, leaving at least 53 people dead and hundreds injured, most of them Muslim. HRW said that the police failed to respond adequately and were at times complicit in these attacks.

“The authorities have failed to conduct impartial and transparent investigations into the violence,” HRW said.

The rights group said that while peaceful protests were dispersed after the government announced a lockdown in March to contain the spread of COVID-19, the authorities have since started arresting protesters, including students and activists, and filing charges of sedition, murder, and terrorism, accusing them of a “conspiracy” to “defame the country in the international arena.”

Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, those arrested have limited to no access to legal counsel or to family members, HRW said.

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