Authorities in Chhattisgarh must immediately release seven members of a civil society fact-finding team who were arrested while travelling from Telangana to investigate alleged extrajudicial executions, or fake encounters in Chhattisgarh, Amnesty International India said today.
Chhattisgarh police arrested seven members of a fact-finding team of the Telangana Democratic Front (TDF) on 25 December under the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act for allegedly possessing banned currency notes worth Rs. 100,000 and Maoist literature. Activists groups in Telangana have denied these allegations and accused the police of falsely accusing their colleagues.
The Chhattisgarh police claimed to have arrested the team in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district. However, the activists and their colleagues in Hyderabad dispute this claim. Speaking to Amnesty International India, N Narayana Rao, General Secretary of Civil Liberties Committee said, “The team left Hyderabad on 24 December, but before they could enter Chhattisgarh, they were arrested by the Telangana police near the Chhattisgarh-Telangana state border and then handed over to the Chhattisgarh police on the same day. The Chhattisgarh police is not allowing civil society to report independently in the state. The group was on a fact-finding mission and they were not carrying the amount of money the police claimed to have found on them.” However, Telangana police officials denied any involvement in the arrest.
The Telangana Democratic Front consists of several Hyderabad based NGOs that work extensively on cases of extrajudicial executions. The team comprised of lawyers Balla Ravindranath, Chikkudu Prabhakar, D. Prabhakar, Durga Prasad, an independent journalist, and three research scholars from Osmania University — Nazeer, Rajendra Prasad and R. Lakshman. The team was travelling to Chhattisgarh to investigate reports of alleged extrajudicial executions by security forces in the state.
All seven were produced in front of a magistrate in Sukma district on 26 December, who denied them bail and sent them to judicial custody. If found guilty, they could face up to seven years in prison.
“Chhattisgarh authorities must immediately release all seven men and stop abusing harsh laws to harass and intimidate activists and journalists who are well within their rights to investigate human rights abuses and seek accountability,” said Abhirr VP, Campaigner at Amnesty International India. “Authorities should ensure that the seven arrested are not be tortured in custody and their right to fair trial must be respected.”
The Additional Superintendent of Police of Sukma district, Jitender Shukla, told Amnesty International India that the activists were arrested inside Chhattisgarh with old currency notes worth Rs. 100,000. He also claimed that the team comprised of Maoist sympathisers who were trying to help Maoists get rid of old currency notes.
“It is disconcerting how frequently draconian laws are being used to silence activists and journalists who work on issues linked to conflict between security forces and Maoist armed groups,” said Abhirr VP. “These attempts at intimidation cannot become order of the day.”
Despite allegations of several recent extrajudicial executions by security forces in Chhattisgarh, there has been no initiative by the state government to set up independent criminal investigations into these cases.
According to data shared by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Chhattisgarh leads the list of extrajudicial encounters by state police, with 66 complaints registered with the Commission between October 2015 and September 2016.
The latest reported case of an extra judicial execution was from Bijapur district on 16 December. A 13-year-old boy was killed by security forces in an alleged encounter. The Chhattisgarh state police said a joint team of the district force had killed an “unidentified and armed Maoist in uniform” in a “successful operation”. His family members disputed the police’s version and have approached the Chhattisgarh High Court. The High Court ordered a re-postmortem and said further action will be ordered, based on the post-mortem findings.
The Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act was enacted in 2005 to combat violence by Maoist armed groups. Several parts of the Act violate India’s obligations under international human rights law. The Act contains broad and vaguely worded definitions of ‘unlawful activity’. The definition includes, for instance, an act which ‘tends to interfere with maintenance of public order’ or ‘which is designed to overawe…any public servant’, or acts ‘encouraging or preaching disobedience to established law and its institutions’. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders has called for the repeal of this law.