The American Bar Association’s (ABA)’s Center for Human Rights has called for the release of all human rights defenders arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon violence case in the interest of flattening the COVID-19 curve, upholding the fundamental rights of detainees and enhancing national security, as their detention was arbitrary.
The international list features names of those arrested from Africa, Eurasia, Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen, Rona Wilson, Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Surendra Gadling, Arun Ferreira, Mahesh Raut and Sudhir Dhawale, all arrested in connection with the violence in Bhima-Koregaon, make it to the list. “We also express our concern regarding reports of the impending arrest of Indian scholar Anand Teltumbde and Indian civil rights activist Gautam Navalakha amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” the centre said.
The ABA statement said, “In the summer of 2018, the Maharashtra police arrested the following activists and lawyers who historically advocated for the rights of marginalized and vulnerable communities in India. A preliminary review by the by the Justice Defenders Program of the Bhima Koregaon judicial records raised serious concern regarding procedural irregularities, abuse of process, and violations of fundamental human rights. The majority of the detained Bhima Koregaon activists are senior citizens and many report health issues that put them at higher risk amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The centre, through its Justice Defenders and TrialWatch Programs, has monitored cases where defenders — including environmental activists, journalists, lawyers and opposition leaders — have been the victims of false criminal allegations, arbitrary arrests and unduly prolonged proceedings marred by fair trial violations. In many instances, these cases have concluded with unjust convictions and lengthy, retributive prison sentences.
The urgent calls to decongest prisons by health experts and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, following fears of the virus “rampaging through prisons,” is not only necessary to prevent an outbreak, but also presents an opportunity for states to ensure individuals, whose constitutional rights have been otherwise suspended by crippled justice systems, do not suffer irreparable harm.
Several countries have already taken steps to release non-violent and low-risk detainees. Yet human rights defenders who have been detained arbitrarily in retaliation for exercising their rights remain behind bars.