Frontline Defenders Report: India – False charges against and persecution of student human rights defenders and those involved in peaceful protests against the Citizen Amendment Act 2019

Front Line Defenders condemns the deliberate targeting of human rights defenders, many of whom are students, peacefully protesting the regressive Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India. Since 28 January 2020 police have carried out multiple arrests of human rights defenders and others involved in organising and participating in protests against the CAA.

Those arrested and currently imprisoned include women human rights defenders Safoora Zargar and Gulfisha Fatima and male human rights defenders Khalid Saifi, Meeran Haider, Shifa ur Rehman, Dr. Kafeel Khan and Sharjeel Imam. In addition, on 27 April 2020, Delhi police seized the mobile phone of woman human rights defender Kawalpreet Kaur. This treatment of student human rights defenders and supporters and organisers of the anti-CAA protests is a direct reprisal for their peaceful human rights work and exercise of the right to free expression. Their arrests represent an attempt to silence dissent, in particular from minority Muslim voices, and take advantage of COVID-19 restrictions to circumvent protests against their arrests and ultimately further a dangerous and regressive State agenda.

On 10 April 2020, student and woman human rights defender Safoora Zargar was arrested by Delhi police for her participation in the anti-CAA protests. She is a student of Jamia Milia Islamia (JMI) university and is a member of the media team for the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC) which organized anti-CAA protests in December 2019. Safoora Zargar is in the second trimester of her pregnancy and suffers from a urinary condition, which is likely to worsen in prison. Her initial arrest was under FIR 48/2020, for which she was granted bail by the lower court. The bail order cites her pregnancy, health condition, and the directives issued by the Indian Supreme Court on decongestion of prisons during COVID-19, as motives for its decision.  Despite being granted bail, she was never released and was immediately re-arrested by the Special Crime Branch of the Delhi Police under a new FIR 59/2020. This FIR does not include her name and originally only contained charges under the Indian Penal Code. The FIR was later amended on 21 April 2020 to include the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which is non-bailable and guarantees her prolonged incarceration. While she remains in jail, there has been a vicious social media campaign against Safoora Zarga, including fake pornographic content.

Safoora Zargar’s arrest is part of a wider pattern of arrests targetting those leading and organising the anti-CAA protests. On 1 April 2020, human rights defender, fellow JMI student and a member of the JCC, Meeran Haider was arrested by the Delhi police (Special Crime Branch). He has been charged with sedition as well as the UAPA under FIR 59/2020. On 9 April, woman human rights defender Gulfisha Fatima was arrested under the same FIR 59/2020. She was actively involved in the women-led protest in Seelampur in North East Delhi against the CAA, worked to raise awareness among local women about the CAA and is a strong voice for secular constitutional principles. She is currently being held under the UAPA and there are fears of custodial torture based on eye witness accounts. On 26 April 2020, police arrested human rights defender and President of the alumni association of Jamia Milia Islamia, Shifa Ur Rehman under FIR 59/2020. Shifa Ur Rehman has been a vocal critic of the CAA, and stands accused of provoking or inciting the Delhi riots in February 2020 through his speeches.

On 27 April, Delhi police seized the phone of woman human rights defender and president of the All India Students Association for Delhi, Kawalpreet Kaur as part of an inquiry into the communal violence in Delhi in February 2020. The memo issued to the defender for the seizure cited several charges, including charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

Several more human rights defenders were also arrested earlier this year and remain incarcerated under anti-terror laws. Human rights defender and social activist associated with United Against Hate, Khalid Saifi was arrested on 26 February 2020. The human rights defender, who consistently appealed for protests to be carried out in a peaceful manner, was severely tortured by police immediately after his arrest. Sharjeel Imam, a student at the Jawarhalal Nehru University and Dr. Khafeel Khan, a medical doctor were arrested on 28 January 2020 and 29 January 2020 respectively, based on speeches they gave at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) against the CAA. Dr. Khafeel Khan is currently imprisoned under the National Security Act (NSA) while Sharjeel Imam is held under the UAPA, both without a realistic prospect of bail.

The Delhi police have alleged that those arrested were deliberately inciting and provoking the public, leading to the violence that erupted in Delhi in February 2020. However, little or no evidence has been produced by police to substantiate these claims. FIR 59/2020, under which those arrested in April are being charged, was filed by a police officer based on secret or confidential information given by an informant. As such information cannot be traced, verified or contested, it should not form the basis of any lengthy incarceration. The use of anti-terror laws – UAPA and NSA – is cause for grave concern. Anti-terror laws have historically been used against human rights defenders in India, most notably in the Bhima Koregan cases and most recently to suppress anti-CAA protesters. The continued incarceration of these human rights defenders in the context of COVID-19 puts them at risk, whilst also violating global best practice and directives set by the Indian supreme court to decongest prisons during the pandemic.

Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned regarding the increased repression of human right defenders in India, particularly linked to the protests against the regressive Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA), passed by the Indian Parliament on 11 December 2019. It expresses its serious concern regarding the Indian authorities’ targeting of student human rights defenders, especially Safoora Zargar, who was kept in solitary confinement in Tihar Jail whilst pregnant and in need of medical care. Since the peaceful protests began, the police have targeted human rights defenders under regressive laws and have used other forms of harassment to suppress their work. Front Line Defenders believes that the unfair charges brought against Safoora Zargar, Gulfisha Fatima, Khalid Saifi, Meeran Haider, Shifa ur Rehman, Dr. Kafeel Khan, Sharjeel Imam and Kawalpreet Kaur are directly related to their work in the defence of human rights. It therefore calls on the authorities in India to cease all investigation and immediately and unconditionally release all those arrested.