To EuropeanCommission President Ursula Von der Leyen
To HighRepresentative/Vice-President Josep Borrell Fontelles
cc to EU Special Representative Eamon Gilmore
Brussels, 29 June 2020
Re: Request to raise serious concerns and urgeprogress on the situation of human rights defenders during the upcoming 15th EU-IndiaSummit of 15 July 2020
Amnesty International (AI), CSW, Front Line Defenders(FLD), Human Rights Watch (HRW), the International Dalit Solidarity Network(IDSN), Minority Rights Group International (MRG), together with theInternational Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation AgainstTorture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection ofHuman Rights Defenders, following up on their respective letters to the officeof the HR/VP from January, are writing to ask you to raise concerns regardingthe deteriorating condition of human rights defenders in India during the upcomingEU-India Summit, and to take India’s deteriorating human rights recordthoroughly into account in the reshaping of the EU-India relationship.
6 June 2020 marked the second anniversary of thearrests of human rights defenders in the Bhima Koregaon case. Now 11 humanrights defenders who worked peacefully for the promotion and protection ofhuman rights, especially Dalit and indigenous people’s rights – namely Sudhir Dhawale,Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut, Surendra Gadling, Sudha Bhardwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao,Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde – are being held in detention, some since June2018. Their bail applications have been systematically rejected; just after anopposition-led government took office in Maharashtra state in 2019, the caseswere shifted to the jurisdiction under the National Investigation Agency (NIA).Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde werearrested as recently as April 2020 amidst the current pandemic and despiteglobal best practice and directives set by the Indian Supreme Court todecongest prisons.
Since December 2019, the police have also beenarresting human rights defenders who peacefully protested against thediscriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Population Register,and National Register of Citizens. There are over 150 challenges to the CAApending before the Indian Supreme Court, including from several Indian statesand United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, but no clarity as towhen they will be heard. The authorities have filed charges of sedition,murder, and terrorism under repressive anti-terror and national security lawssuch as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and National Security Actagainst protesters.
The authorities have also failed to conduct impartialand transparent investigations into the violence that broke out in Delhi inFebruary 2020 around the protests. They have responded with bias, targetinghuman rights defenders and government critics but failing to properly prosecuteviolence y supporters of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP), orexcessive use of force by police officers, and failing to file cases againstBJP leaders who advocated violence. Thosearrested and currently imprisoned include women human rights defenders GulfishaFatima, Natasha Narwal, and Devangana Kalita, andhuman rights defenders Khalid Saifi, Meeran Haider, Shifa ur Rehman, Dr. KafeelKhan, Sharjeel Imam, and Asif Iqbal. Woman human rights defender
Safoora Zargar recently obtained bail on humanitariangrounds (she is 23 weeks pregnant) and was released on 24 June. ActivistIsharat Jahan,who was arrested on 26 February, is also in jail. Human rights defender AkhilGogoi remainsin prison on successive First Information Reports (FIRs) in the midst of thepandemic. The United Nations have called for their immediate release.
The selective targeting of Harsh Mander, who filed apetition in the Supreme Court to consider FIR against political officials whomade inflammatory speeches that led to over 50 deaths, is a concerningdevelopment.The Delhi police has falsely named Mr. Mander in a FIR as an instigator of theDelhi violence as an intimidation tactic to silent dissent against stateoppression. In addition, another prominent human rights activist, YogendraYadav, has been named as conspirator.
We are especially alarmed at the attempt to arrestDelhi Minorities Commission Chairman and human rights defender Zafarul IslamKhan under the draconian sedition law, in whatseems to be reprisals for the Delhi Minorities Commission initiating afact-finding into the violence in North-East Delhi that killed at least 53people, most of them Muslims, and alerting on what appeared to be a plannedtargeting of the Muslim community by the police during COVID-19.
Incidents of human rights defenders being arrested andtargeted due to their criticism of COVID-19 response have been reported fromdifferent parts of India. Front Line Defenders has issued urgent appeals oncases involving defenders Dr. Laifungbam Debabrata Roy, PranabDoley, and Soneshwar Narah fromthe states of Assam and Manipur since the lockdown.
Human rights defenders in Kashmir, who were justcoming out of the blockade which began in August 2019, continue to sufferrepression during the pandemic. Journalists Masrat Zahra, Peerzada Ashiq andGowhar Geelaniwere targeted for their work. Several other defenders speak of fears of surveillanceand the possibility of being targeted while carrying out their work andhumanitarian services.
These arrests represent an attempt to silence dissent,in particular from – but not limited to – minorityMuslim voices. In several cases, thepolice filed new charges under draconian counterterrorism and sedition lawsafter activists were granted bail to ensure that they remained in custody, placingthem at further risk during the COVID-19 outbreak inovercrowded prisons with inadequate sanitation, hygiene, and access to medicalcare. COVID-19 restrictions have led to no access to legal counsel or familymembers for those arrested and allow authorities to avoid protests against thearrests of the defenders, whilst again also violating global best practice anddirectives set by the Indian Supreme Court todecongest prisons during the pandemic.
We are seriously concerned by the misdirection of thenational security apparatus in India towards silencing dissenting voices,ultimately distracting from legitimate security challenges.
The Chair of the Human Rights Subcommittee of theEuropean Parliament has voiced serious concerns over the situation of humanrights defenders in India in an open letter to Minister Amit Shah recently. Thevery question of whether human rights issues were raised with the Indian authoritiesprivately was also asked to the High Representative during a EuropeanParliament AFET/DROI/SEDE debate on 20 April 2020.
The European Union and India’s wish to strengthentheir bilateral relationship is “based on shared values of democracy, rule oflaw, respect for human rights […] and a common interest to further developbilateral cooperation in every respect.” Commitmentshave been made by both the EU and India in the Agenda for Action-2020,following the 13th EU-India Summit of 30 March 2016, to “discuss Human Rightsissues [...] in the EU-India political dialogue.” Inlight of these strong statements, AI, CSW, FLD, HRW, IDSN, FIDH, MRG, and OMCTare urging you not to sideline human rights considerations ahead of and onoccasion of the upcoming 15th EU-India Summit, but rather to make them anintegral part of Summit discussions (on trade, on climate change, on investments,on terrorism especially), with a particular emphasis on the situation of humanrights defenders. The EU-India partnership should be strengthened by a frankexchange even on more sensitive human rights issues, especially where theyimpact the safety of the most vulnerable in society. The deterioration of therule of law in India should also be particularly worrying to the EU as it isthe cornerstone of a partnership and exchanges based on trust and a levelplaying field.
As the world's two largest democracies, the EU andIndia should hold each other to the highest standards. For democracy in Indiato have real meaning for people on the ground, there has to be greater effortto ensure that protections are extended to all, including human rightsdefenders and dissenting voices. The upcoming EU-India Summit is a veryimportant step in determining the future contours of the strategic partnership,and we are calling on you to ensure the European Union stands firm and holdsits ground on the bilateral commitments made on numerous past occasions thatany future review and upgrading of EU-India relations be founded on the respectfor human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. An enabling environment forhuman rights defenders is one of the paramount indicators of a functioningdemocracy, respectful of human rights and based on the rule of law. As the HighRepresentative rightfully pointed out amidst the COVID-19 pandemic: “the roleof civil society and human rights defenders is more important than ever to[...] defend human rights, fundamental freedoms and democratic space, and topromote accountability.” We urgeyou to ensure that supporting human rights defenders remains high on the listof the EU’s priorities, including with India, and to privately and publiclyraise human rights concerns with India, especially the targeting of humanrights defenders.
We look forward to hearing back from you, and remainat your disposal should you require any further information.
Front Line Defenders
Human Rights Watch
International Dalit Solidarity Network
International Federation for Human Rights within theframework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Minority Rights Group International
World Organisation against Torture within theframework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Apart from Natasha Narwal and DevanganaKalita all human rights defenders arrested in the context of anti-CAA protests,that have been reported to FLD, are from the Muslim minority in India.
Strategic Partnership between the EuropeanUnion and India.