India: Inhumane prison conditions for Bhima Koregaon Human Rights Defenders (joint communication)

On 11 June 2021, I wrote a letter jointly with two other UN experts on the alleged inhumane prison conditions and deteriorating condition of 15 human rights defenders, as well as Varavara Rao who was granted medical bail.

Of pressing concern was the inhumane prison conditions and deteriorating health of the human rights defenders. The death of Fr. Stan Swamy shortly after this communication was written demonstrate the severity of the conditions in which the human rights defenders are being held. It is haunting to now read how Fr. Swamy’s requests to be transferred to hospital to receive treatment were initially denied repeatedly.

In the communication we also expressed our grave concern over the continued detention of the human rights defenders, which appear to be linked to their defence of minority and land rights of the Dalit and Adivasi peoples in India. We expressed further concern that the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) is being misused to keep human rights defenders in jail for prolonged periods. Throughout the Bhima Koregaon case, the right to due processes and fair trial guarantees were reportedly not respected.

Four previous communications, have been sent to the Government of India on the alleged targeting and arrest of Ms. Bharadwaj, Mr. Swamy, Mr. Gadling, Mr. Raut, Mr. Dhawale, Mr. Gonsalves, Mr. Dhawale, Mr. Wilson, Ms. Sen, and Mr. Ferreira. In these communications, we raised our concern that due process and fair trial guarantees may have not been adhered to throughout the judicial processing of the Bhima Koregaon case. We also expressed serious concern regarding the prison conditions and the health condition of the above-mentioned human rights defenders, in particular that of Mr. Swamy and Ms. Sen.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication

The 15 human rights defenders mentioned in this communication (apart from Varavara Rao)  are accused for their alleged participation in the violence that broke out during the 200th anniversary of the commemoration of the Bhima Koregaon battle on 1 and 2 January 2018. On 24 January 2020, the inquiry into the Bhima Koregaon case was transferred from the Pune Police, in the state of Maharashtra to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). At the time of writing, all 15 human rights defenders have all been accused and arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and remain in jail, with their bail applications postponed or denied. The UAPA permits the authorities to hold detainees in custody without charge for periods of up to 180 days, restricts recourse to bail and allows for prolonged detention. In the Bhima Koregaon case, it was reported that the evidence the prosecution relied on had allegedly been planted though malicious software, rendering the ongoing detention of the 15 accused as arbitrary and unlawful.

On 22 February 2021, the Bombay High Court granted Mr. Varavara Rao, human rights defender who is also accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, medical bail due to his continuous ill health.

The 15 human rights defenders are detained in Taloja and Byculla jails in Maharashtra, where the conditions are reportedly unsanitary and inhumane, making them vulnerable to the highly infectious and fatal new variant of the COVID-19 virus in India. Most of the human rights defenders are more than 60 years old, and suffer from severe comorbidities for which they are not receiving the essential medical care.

Allegations have been made regarding overcrowding, absence of social distancing, lack of access to basic medicines or medical attention and non-reliable antigen testing systems that do not properly reflect the high number of positive COVID-19 cases in both jails. Byculla Women’s jail has reported more than 40 new cases of COVID-19 in the month of May 2021. Sources have confirmed that the majority of internal staff in Taloja jail have contracted the virus and tested positive, while more than 60 people are currently being treated for the virus within the jail. There has also been a severe water shortage in Taloja jail, rendering basic chores impossible to complete. It is alleged that all 15 Bhima Koregaon prisoners have had their right to communicate with their family and lawyers restricted; video calls have been denied, phone calls have been restricted to 5 minutes, and the connection is often poor making calls inaudible. Letters sent and received by prisoners have allegedly been intercepted, scrutinised and delayed. Complaints by prisoners are reportedly often met with threats to reduce or stop calls and letters and/or to be moved to a different barracks.

The case of Mr. Stan Swamy

Fr. Stan Swamy is an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and indigenous people’s rights defender, who has dedicated his life’s work to social activism and defending the rights of the underprivileged and indigenous communities, including the Adivasi and Dalit minorities. He is also the founder of Bagaicha, a social research and training centre in Jharkhand State, and Vistapan Virodhi Janvikash Andolan (VVJA) a pan-Indian platform of movements campaigning against human rights violations such as forced displacement and illegal land acquisitions.

On 8 October 2020, Fr. Swamy was arrested for his alleged connection in the Bhima Koregaon case. Mr. Swamy is 84 years old and suffers from Parkinson’s disease, which causes him to have severe tremors in both hands and renders basic daily actions such as eating, drinking and washing extremely challenging. He also has serious hearing difficulties, and requires hearing aids for both ears. In the past, he has undergone surgery twice for hernia. Although his ailing condition has been brought to the attention of the authorities, Fr. Swamy’s interim bail applications as well as requests for the human rights defender to be taken to hospital have previously been denied. On 26 November 2020, the NIA court in Mumbai rejected Mr. Swamy’s request for a straw, a sipper bottle and warm winter clothes. On 29 November 2020, Taloja jail officers provided Mr. Swamy with a sipper bottle.

It has been reported that Mr. Swamy’s current condition is fragile; Mr. Swamy has not yet been tested for COVID-19 and has been continually denied the adequate and necessary medical treatment. It has been reported that Mr. Swamy has been denied the vaccine because he does not have his Aadhaar card in prison.

On 19 May 2021, the Maharashtra High Court ordered that the Mr. Swamy be transferred to a hospital to be treated and appointed a joint committee to inquire into his health and treatment in Taloja jail. On 28 May 2021, the Bombay High Court ordered the Maharashtra Government to transfer Mr. Swamy to a private hospital for 15 days to receive immediate treatment.

The case of Ms. Sudha Bharadwaj

Ms. Sudha Bhardwaj is a human rights defender and lawyer, who represents the rights of indigenous groups, including the Adivasi people in the state of Chhattisgarh, and the Dalit minority. She also served as general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and a visiting professor at the National University in Delhi.

Ms. Bharadwaj is detained in the overcrowded Byculla Women’s jail. She is a diabetic and suffers from ischemic heart disease, pulmonary tuberculosis, urinary infections, weight and hair loss, skin infections and hypertension. It is reported that the woman human rights defender was given the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the start of May 2021, after which her health began to rapidly deteriorate. Initially it was presumed that this was a reaction to the vaccine; however, she continues to suffer from loss of appetite, stomach problems as well as other health complications. As Ms. Bharadwaj tested negative for COVID-19 and these symptoms continued, she requested a medical check-up, which was denied by prison superintendent who called Ms. Bharadwaj a “habitual complainer”. She has also been denied access to books and newspapers in prison.

The case of Mr. Hany Babu

Mr. Hany Babu is a human rights defender and associate professor at the National University of Delhi, specialising in areas of policy, linguistic identity, marginalised languages and social justice. He is an advocate for the rights of marginalised communities and has been active in supporting underprivileged Dalit students.

The judicial harassment of Mr. Babu began in 2019 and he was formally arrested on 28 July 2020, for his alleged involvement in the Bhima Koregaon case.

On 3 May 2021, Mr Babu developed a life threatening eye infection in his left eye, which impaired his vision and spread to his ear, cheek and forehead, causing severe pain and lack of sleep. In spite of repeated requests for immediate medical attention, the authorities of Taloja jail initially denied him access to medical treatment and forced him to dress his eye with soiled towels. On 7 May 2021, Mr. Babu was taken to a Government hospital where he was prescribed antibacterial medication and taken back to Taloja jail, which is overcrowded and where there is no access to clean water. Although the ophthalmologist advised the authorities to bring Mr. Babu back to hospital on 10 May 2021, the human rights defender remained in prison until 13 May 2021, when he was taken to JJ
Hospital and later transferred to GT hospital in Mumbai where remains at the time of writing. On 13 May 2021, it was reported that Mr. Babu tested positive for COVID-19.

The case of Mr. Mahesh Raut

Mr. Mahesh Raut is a land rights defender who has been involved in the People’s Movement Against Displacement.

Mr. Raut is suffering from a fever, cough, and intense body aches and has not been provided the appropriate medicines in jail, even though medicines to tend  to his ailments were sent directly to him, prison authorities did not give him access to them. He remains in Taloja jail at the time of writing.

The case of Mr. Surendra Gadling

Mr. Surendra Gadling is a human rights defender and lawyer. In his capacity as the General Secretary of the India Association of People’s Lawyers (IPAL), he has represented numerous human rights defenders arrested on alleged fabricated charges of being anti-national.

Mr. Gadling’s pre-existing health conditions including hypertension, asthma, and diabetes require regular consultation to ensure that these ailments do not regress. Mr. Gadling previously required new spectacles, which were delivered to Taloja jail but were never given to him. Furthermore, Mr. Gadling was not permitted to attend his late mother’s death rites and he remains ill in Taloja jail.

The case of Mr. Sudhir Dhawale and Mr. Vernon Gonsalves

Mr. Sudhir Dhawale is a Dalit rights defender, who has been involved in fact-finding exercises to expose alleged human rights violations in Maharashtra. Mr. Vernon Gonsalves is human rights defender and academic who has been vocal against laws that restrict human rights in India, such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

Mr. Dhawale and Mr. Gonsalves are currently detained within the same barracks in Taloja jail, where it has been reported that eight people have contracted the virus and tested positive. The prison staff have refused to test the human rights defenders despite their requests. It is reported that Mr. Dhawale has been denied the vaccine because he does not have his Aadhaar card with him in prison.

Other human rights defenders reportedly facing ill-health:

Ms. Shoma Sen is a women’s rights defender, professor and member of the human rights organisation Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR). Mr. Gautam Navlakha is a human rights defender, journalist and member of the NGO People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR). Mr. Arun Ferreira is a human rights lawyer, member of the IPAL, who has also been a vocal opponent of the UAPA.

Mr. Ramesh Gaichor, Mr. Sagar Gorkhe, and Ms. Jyoti Jagtap are human rights defenders and members of the Kabir Kala Manch (KMM), a Pune based cultural group who promote, protect and defend the rights of the Bahujan community in the state of Maharashtra.

Mr. Rona Wilson is a human rights defender and member of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP), which has also campaigned against the UAPA and other repressive laws. Mr. Anand Teltumbde is an academic, writer and human rights defender who has written extensively on Dalit rights and the anti-caste movement in India. He is also a member of the CPDR and the All India Forum for the Rights to Education.

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