India: repression of protests violating freedom of association and assembly

The ICJ and the World Organization against Torture (OMCT) today highlighted a range of human rights violations, including of freedom of association and assembly, in India’s repression of peaceful protests and the impact of COVID-19 measures in the country.

The joint statement “OMCT and ICJ welcome the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association and echo his concerns over the intensity and seriousness of the threats to the enjoyment of these rights, including the impact of current Covid-19 pandemic on the already fragile civic space.

We are particularly alarmed over the increasingly violent repression of dissent in India and the arbitrary detention and harassment of activists and human rights defenders by the state in relation to their participation in peaceful protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA), the National Population Register and the National Register of Citizens.

The repression of anti-CAA protests has been brutal, with the police reportedly using excessive force against demonstrators, including firing indiscriminately into crowds, using teargas and water cannons, beating bystanders and detaining and torturing protesters, including children. At least 31 persons were killed during these protests and scores were injured. No impartial and transparent investigations into the violence have been conducted to this day.

Reportedly fabricated charges of sedition, murder, and terrorism under repressive anti-terror and national security laws – such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the National Security Act – have been filed against activists and human rights defenders participating in the protests. Those arrested and detained include Gulfisha Fatima, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita, Khalid Saifi, Meeran Haider, Shifa ur Rehman, Isharat Jahan, Dr. Kafeel Khan, Sharjeel Imam, Akhil Gogoi and Asif Iqbal. They are still in prison despite repeated calls for their release by national and international human rights groups and the United Nations.

Severe restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly and association have been imposed in the framework of the Covid-19 emergency. These include blanket shutdown of internet services and the imposition in several areas of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, a colonial law banning public protests and gathering of more than five people. While appreciating India’s efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19, we remind the government that restrictions must meet the requirements of legality, necessity and proportionality and shall not be abused to muffle dissent.

We call on the Government of India to take urgent steps to ensure that its people enjoy the rights to express dissent and to participate in peaceful protests without fear of being arrested, brutally beaten, tortured or killed. The right to life and from the prohibition of torture and other ill treatment as well as the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly are protected under international law including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which India is a party.

We further call for a thorough, prompt, transparent and impartial investigation into allegations of unlawful use of force by police, and for the immediate release of all unjustly detained activists and HRDs.”

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