The chairperson of the Subcommittee of Human Rights of the European Parliament, in a letter to Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, has condemned the arrest of human rights defenders under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
In her letter, Maria Arena said the European body has been closely following the arrests of human rights defenders Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha by the National Investigative Agency in India.
“It is particularly alarming to note that human rights defenders cannot conduct advocacy activities, notably in favor of India’s poorest and most marginalised communities, without becoming subject to intimidation and harassment,” Arena said in her letter.
“Equally worrying is the fact that terrorism charges, including under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) have been used to silence them,” she noted pointing out that by United Nations Special Procedures, this clearly represents a violation of international human rights standards.
The letter further stated that to date, the European Parliament had noted that various forms of legitimate peaceful protests against laws, policies and governmental actions, including the Citizenship Amendment Act, had been portrayed as terrorist activities under this legislation, resulting in a number of arrests.
“This is notably the case for human rights activists such as Safoora Zargar, Gulfisha Fatima, Khalid Saifi, Meeran Haider, Shifa-Ur-Rehman, Dr Kafeel Khan, Asif Iqbal and Sharjeel Imam, who were recently arrested by the police,” the letter noted.
Against this background, there are also increased fears that the legislation might confer discretionary powers upon state agencies.
“Indeed, the vague definition of ‘unlawful activities’ and ‘membership of terrorist organisations’ could allow for wide discretion by the government in applying the law,” Arena said. “Such a process would substantially weaken judicial oversight and the protection of civil liberties in the country. Consequently, we strongly believe that measures should be urgently taken to stop impeding and criminalising the work of human rights defenders by means of overly broad national security legislation and to respect their freedoms of association and expression.”
India, she said, should do much more to ensure a safe and conducive environment for civil society working in the country and consider enacting a law on the protection and promotion of human rights defenders.
Moreover, the unprecedented situation of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to repeated calls by the United Nations for the immediate release of prisoners of conscience as part of overall efforts to contain the outbreak.
This collective endeavour was echoed by the Subcommittee on Human Rights during its May 11 meeting. “We trust that it is our common duty and responsibility to protect human rights without discrimination and thus, encourage India to join in and implement fully the guidelines adopted by its Supreme Court aiming at reducing detainee population at this difficult time. It is indeed essential to engage all strengths and means to fight together against the pandemic to avoid this becoming a risk to human rights.”
The subcommittee values the principles of partnership and open dialogue with India and looks forward to further progress on the protection of human rights in the country in a spirit of cooperation and constructive engagement, it added.