NEW DELHI – The arrest of activists, including Safoora Zaragar who is pregnant, amid the outbreak of Covid-19 is drawing a lot of outrage against Narendra Modi government. Members of civil society issued joint statements to condemn the witch-hunt of the dissenters.
Now on Friday, human rights group Amnesty International India castigated the Central government for imprisoning anti-CAA activists during the pandemic terming it “brutal” and “extremely cruel” of the government.
“The Government of India has been exceedingly intolerant towards free speech and dissent. But to arrest Safoora who is in the second trimester of her pregnancy and send her to an overcrowded prison during the pandemic highlights how brutal is the ongoing clampdown in the country,” said Avinash Kumar, Executive Director, Amnesty International India.
“Prison inmates have already tested positive for the COVID-19 virus at a central prison in Indore and a district prison in Karnataka. While the country battles the COVID-19 pandemic, it is extremely cruel of the government to arrest and imprison a person using repressive laws just because they have been critical of the government. The government is putting their lives at grave risk”, said Kumar.
Safoora Zargar, 27, a research student from Jamia Millia University, was arrested on 10 April by the Delhi Police and later charged under the repressive Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Safoora who is also three-month pregnant is accused by the police of being a key ‘conspirator’ in the Delhi riots that took place in north-eastern part of the National Capital in February.
Before the riots, Safoora, as part of the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC), had been organising peaceful protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). She is currently imprisoned in Tihar jail which is one of the most overcrowded prisons in the country and has not been able to access her lawyer or meet her husband since 14 April.
“Safoora’s pregnancy is a mitigating factor against her continued detention under UAPA, particularly amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders also known as the Bangkok Rules also recommend that while deciding on pre-trial measures, non-custodial alternatives should be preferred for pregnant women where possible and appropriate,” said the Amnesty in its press statement.
Besides Safoora, Meeran Haider who is a research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia and Shifa-Ur-Rehman, President of the Jamia Millia Islamia Alumni Association have also been arrested under UAPA and sent to Tihar Jail.
Apart from them, the Amnesty also questioned the arrest of JNU student Sharjeel Imam, Assam-based activist Akhil Gogoi, Bengaluru student Amulya Leona, author Anand Teltumbde and activist Gautam Navlakha. It criticised the government for invoking the draconian anti-terror law UAPA against these activists and journalist Masrat Zahra, Gowhar Geelani and social activist Umar Khalid.
“The Government of India has shown that even during a pandemic when it should be focusing on protecting all of its people without discrimination, it will continue to harass and jail those for peacefully exercising their human rights”, said Kumar, adding “Laws like the UAPA and sedition have no place in the country whether there is a pandemic or not. In fact, the current pandemic presents an opportunity to the Government of India to immediately end this ongoing crackdown on dissent and free speech which has created a climate of fear across the country. The first steps towards this are to repeal these laws”.
Criticising the draconian laws like UAPA and sedition, the Amnesty said that the conviction rate in these laws show that they are used only to harass activists and stifle the dissent. It said only 27% is the conviction rate in the UAPA in 2018 and most cases remained pending while only seven cases saw conviction in the sedition since 2016.