India: Denial of phone calls to defenders detained in Maharashtra State

17/11/2021
Urgent Appeal

IND 002 / 1121 / OBS 119
Arbitrary detention /
Judicial harassment
India
November 17, 2021

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH, requests your urgent intervention in the following situation in India.

Description of the situation:

The Observatory has been informed about the denial of phone and video calls to the following human rights defenders arbitrarily detained in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case: Ms. Sudha Bhardwaj ; Mr. Vernon Gonsalves; Mr. Gautam Navlakha ; Mr. Arun Ferreira; Mr.Sudhir Dhawale; Mr. Rona Wilson; Ms. Shoma Sen; Mr. Anand Teltumbde; Mr. Mahesh Raut; Mr. Surendra Gadling; Mr. Hany Babu; Mr. Ramesh Gaichour; Mr. Sagar Gorkhe; and Ms. Jyoti Jagtap.

The above-mentioned human rights defenders have been denied phone and video calls with their relatives since October 2021, following a decision of the Inspector General of Prisons and Correctional Services of Maharashtra State to reinstitute the prison visit system that was in force before the Covid-19 pandemic in India.

According to the 2016 Model Prison Manual of India, in-person meetings with relatives are preferred over other means of communication to guarantee detainees’ contact with the outside world. However, following the suspension of prison visits adopted in March 2020 to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the penitentiary authorities of Maharashtra State replaced in-person visits with a system of bi-weekly phone calls with their relatives, which ended in October 2021. Given that they reside in states all across India, the families of the above-mentioned human rights defenders face significant challenges to visit the detainees, as they are unable to afford traveling long distances to the prisons in Maharashtra State. This situation has a negative impact on the defenders’ psychological well-being. Moreover, it is inconsistent with the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules), particularly Rule 58 which states that detainees shall be allowed to communicate with their family and friends at regular intervals by corresponding in writing and using telecommunication, electronic, digital or other means, as well as with the “Interim Guidance on Covid-19” issued by the World Health Organisation and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in March 2020.

The Observatory recalls that the detention conditions in which Sudha Bhardwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Anand Teltumbde, Mahesh Raut, Surendra Gadling, Hany Babu, Ramesh Gaichour, Sagar Gorkhe, and Jyoti Jagtap are held pose a serious risk to their health. They are detained in overcrowded jails in unsanitary conditions, where there is a lack of access to proper medical care, including Covid-19 testing and vaccination. According to his relatives, on October 12, 2021, 70-year-old Gautam Navlakha, detained in Taloja Central jail, west of Mumbai, Maharashtra State, was transferred to a high-security barrack in the same facility. He has been denied access to open spaces since then and consequently his health has deteriorated.

In this regard, the Observatory further recalls that prominent human rights defender Mr. Stan Swamy died in custody at the age of 85 on July 5, 2021, after 270 days of arbitrary detention in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case. Despite having tested positive for Covid-19 and his critical health situation, the authorities systematically denied him bail. Mr. Varavara Rao , an 80-year-old human rights defender detained for two and a half years in Taloja Central jail in connection with the same case, was granted bail on medical grounds on February 22, 2021, after he had tested positive for Covid-19 and was denied adequate medical care.

Eight of the above-mentioned human rights defenders have been detained without trial since 2018 and six since 2020 under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) [1] in relation to the anti-caste violence that took place in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra State on January 1, 2018. Their arrest is particularly concerning given that a digital forensics investigation found that some of the evidence relied on by the prosecution had been planted through malicious software onto computer of one of them, Rona Wilson, and that there was no evidence that the defender interacted with these files.

The Observatory condemns the ongoing arbitrary detention of the above-mentioned human rights defenders and expresses deep concern over the Maharashtra State prison authorithies’ decision to prevent them from having regular communications with their families. The Observatory urges the Indian authorities to comply with the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, particularly Rule 58.

The Observatory reiterates its concern over the misuse of the UAPA by the Indian authorities to target human rights defenders and silence dissent, and condemns all acts of harassment and persecution of human rights defenders in India. The Observatory urges the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release and drop all charges against the above-mentioned human rights defenders and put an end to all acts of harassment against them.

Actions requested:

Please write to the authorities in India, urging them to:

i. Guarantee in all circumstances the physical integrity and psychological well-being ofSudha Bhardwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Anand Teltumbde; Mahesh Raut, Surendra Gadling, Hany Babu, Ramesh Gaichour, Sagar Gorkhe, Jyoti Jagtap, and all human rights defenders in India;

ii. Guarantee the right of Sudha Bhardwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Anand Teltumbde, Mahesh Raut, Surendra Gadling, Hany Babu, Ramesh Gaichour, Sagar Gorkhe, Jyoti Jagtap, to have regular communication with their relatives by phone and video calls;

iii. Immediately and unconditionally release Sudha Bhardwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale; Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Anand Teltumbde; Mahesh Raut, Surendra Gadling, Hany Babu, Ramesh Gaichour, Sagar Gorkhe, and Jyoti Jagtap, and put an end to all acts of harassment - including at the judicial level – againstthemand all other human rights defenders in India, and ensure that they are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance and fear of reprisals in all circumstances;

iv. Immediately put an end to the use of repressive laws to target human rights defenders, ensure its compliance with international human rights standards and repeal the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

Addresses:

· Mr. Narendra Damodardas Modi, Prime Minister of India, E-mail: pmosb@pmo.nic.in, Twitter: @narendramodi
· Mr. Amit Shah, Union Minister of Home Affairs of India, Email: dirfcra-mha@gov.in
· Mr. Ajay Kumar Bhalla, Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs of India, Email: hshso@nic.in
· Mr. N.V. Ramana, Chief Justice of India, Supreme Court of India, Email: supremecourt@nic.in
· Mr. Shri Bimbadhar Pradhan, IAS, Secretary General Chief Executive Officer
of the National Human Rights Commission of India, Email: sgnhrc@nic.in, Twitter: @India_NHRC
· Mr. Debindra Kundra, Focal Point on Human Rights Defenders, National Human Rights Commission of India, Email: hrd-nhrc@nic.in
· H.E. Mr. Rajiv Kumar Chander, Ambassador, Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Email: mission.india@ties.itu.int

Please also write to the diplomatic mission or embassy of India located in your country.

***
Geneva-Paris, November 17, 2021

Kindly inform us of any action undertaken quoting the code of this appeal in your reply.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH. The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. OMCT and FIDH are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

To contact the Observatory, call the emergency line:
• E-mail: Appeals@fidh-omct.org
• Tel OMCT: + 41 (0) 22 809 49 39
• Tel FIDH: + 33 (0) 1 43 55 25 18

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