India: Human rights defender Sudha Bharadwaj spends another birthday in detention

Human rights defender and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj will be spending her 60th birthday in detention today, more than three years after she was arrested on baseless charges under a draconian anti-terror law. Global civil society alliance CIVICUS calls on the Indian government to halt the ongoing persecution against her and release Bharadwaj immediately and unconditionally. 

Bharadwaj has been in pre-trial detention since August 2018, when she was arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and accused of having links with Maoist terrorist organisations. She and 15 other human rights defenders were further accused of conspiring to incite members of the marginalised Dalit community in relation to violence which erupted in Bhima Koregaon village in the Pune district of Maharashtra in January 2018.  

Bharadwaj was initially held under house arrest until October 2018, when she was moved to Byculla Women’s Prison in Mumbai. This is her fourth birthday in prison. 

“Instead of celebrating her birthday with family and friends, Sudha will be alone in Byculla prison because she chose to speak up for the rights of Indigenous people and workers. Her detention highlights the systematic misuse of security laws by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to clamp down on dissent and silence human rights defenders”, said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia Pacific researcher. 

Her multiple pleas for bail including for underlying health issues have been opposed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), despite calls by the UN to decongest prisons and release political prisoners during the pandemic. There are  serious concerns about the validity of evidence against her. A report in March 2021 by a U.S. digital forensics firm has raised questions about incriminating letters presented as evidence to implicate Bharadwaj and the other activists. The letters were found on an activist’s laptop which is thought to have been hacked. 

UN experts have expressed concerns about the terrorism charges laid against Bharadwaj and about the UAPA in general, particularly with regards to its vague definition of ‘unlawful activities’ and ‘membership of terrorist organisations’ which have been routinely used by the government to stifle dissent. 

“The Indian government must stop using restrictive national security and counter-terrorism laws against human rights defenders and dissenters. The laws are incompatible with India’s international human rights obligations and become tools for judicial harassment” added Benedict 

Sudha Bharadwaj is one of a group of leading human rights defenders who feature in CIVICUS’ global campaign #StandAsMyWitness. The campaign urges people to call for an end to the imprisonment and harassment of human rights defenders across the world. CIVICUS encourages people to share the defenders’ individual stories on social media using the hashtag #StandAsMyWitness. 

India’s rating was downgraded by the CIVICUS Monitor from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ in December 2019.  

 

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