human rights

 

  • HAITI: ‘There is opportunity for a meaningful shift from foreign interference to true leadership of Haitian people’

    Ellie HappelCIVICUS speaks with Ellie Happel, professor of the Global Justice Clinic and Director of the Haiti Project at New York University School of Law. Ellie lived and worked in Haiti for several years, and her work continues to focus on solidarity with social movements in Haiti and racial and environmental justice.

    What have been the key political developments since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021?

    As an American, I want to begin by emphasising the role the US government has played in creating the present situation. The history of unproductive and oppressive foreign intervention is long.

    To understand the context of the Moïse presidency, however, we have to at least go back to 2010. Following the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010, the USA and other external actors called for elections. People did not have their voting cards; more than two million people had lost their homes. But elections went ahead. The US government intervened in the second round of Haiti’s presidential elections, calling for candidate and founder of the PHTK party, Michel Martelly, to be put into the second round. Martelly was subsequently elected.

    During the Martelly presidency we saw a decline in political, economic and social conditions. Corruption was well documented and rampant. Martelly failed to hold elections and ended up ruling by decree. He hand-selected Moïse as his successor. The US government strongly supported both the Martelly and Moïse administrations despite the increasing violence, the destruction of Haitian government institutions, the corruption and the impunity that occurred under their rule.

    Moïse’s death is not the biggest problem that Haiti faces. During his tenure, Moïse effectively destroyed Haitian institutions. Haitian people rose up against the PHTK regime in protest, and they were met with violence and repression. There is evidence of government implication in mass killings – massacres – of people in areas that were known to oppose PHTK.

    Two weeks prior to Moïse’s assassination, a prominent activist and a widely known journalist were murdered in Haiti. Diego Charles and Antoinette Duclair were calling for accountability. They were active in the movement to build a better Haiti. They were killed with impunity.

    It is clear that the present crisis did not originate in Moïse’s assassination. It is the result of failed foreign policies and of the way the Haitian government repressed and halted opposition protests demanding accountability for corruption and violence, and demanding change.

    What currently gives me hope is the work of the Commission for Haitian Solution to the Crisis, which was created prior to Moïse’s assassination. The Commission is a broad group of political parties and civil society organisations (CSOs) that came together to work collectively to rebuild the government. This presents an opportunity for a meaningful shift from foreign interference to true leadership of Haitian people.

    What is your view on the postponement of elections and the constitutional referendum, and what are the prospects of democratic votes taking place?

    In the current climate, elections are not the next step in addressing Haiti’s political crisis. Elections should not occur until the conditions for a fair, free and legitimate vote are met. The elections of the past 11 years demonstrate that they are not an automatic means of achieving representative democracy.

    Today, there are many hurdles to holding elections. The first is one of governance: elections must be overseen by a governing body that has legitimacy, and that is respected by the Haitian people. It would be impossible for the de facto government to organise elections. The second is gang violence. It’s estimated that more than half of Port-au-Prince is under the control of gangs.  When the provisional electoral council was preparing for elections a few months back, its staff could not access a number of voting centres due to gang control. Third, eligible Haitian voters should have voter ID cards.

    The US government and others should affirm the right of the Haitian people to self-determination. The USA should neither insist on nor support elections without evidence of concrete measures to ensure that they are free, fair, inclusive and perceived as legitimate. Haitian CSOs and the Commission will indicate when the conditions exist for free, fair and legitimate elections.

    Is there a migration crisis caused by the situation in Haiti? How can the challenges faced by Haitian migrants be addressed?

    What we call the ‘migration crisis’ is a strong example of how US foreign policy and immigration policy towards Haiti have long been affected by anti-Black racism.

    Many Haitians who left the country following the earthquake in 2010 first moved to South America. Many have subsequently left. The economies of Brazil and Chile worsened, and Haitian migrants encountered racism and a lack of economic opportunity. Families and individuals have travelled northward by foot, boat and bus towards the Mexico-USA border.

    For many years now, the US government has not allowed Haitian migrants and other migrants to enter the USA. They are expelling people without an asylum interview – a ‘credible fear’ interview, which is required under international law – back to Haiti.

    The US government must stop using Title 42, a public health provision, as a pretext to expel migrants. The US government should instead offer humanitarian assistance and support Haitian family reunification and relocation in the USA.

    It is impossible to justify deportation to Haiti right now, for the same reasons that the US government has advised US citizens not to travel there. There are estimates of nearly 1,000 documented cases of kidnapping in 2021. Friends explain that anyone is at risk. Kidnappings are no longer targeted, but school kids and street merchants and pedestrians are being held hostage to demand money. The US government has not only declared Haiti unsafe for travel, but in May 2021, the US Department of Homeland Security designated Haiti for Temporary Protected Status, allowing eligible Haitian nationals residing in the USA to apply to remain there because Haiti cannot safely repatriate its nationals.

    The USA should halt deportations to Haiti. And the USA and other countries in the Americas must begin to recognise, address and repair the anti-Black discrimination that characterises their immigration policies.

    What should the international community, and especially the USA, do to improve the situation?

    First, the international community should take the lead of Haitian CSOs and engage in a serious and supportive way with the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis. Daniel Foote, the US special envoy for Haiti, resigned in protest eight weeks into the job; he said that his colleagues at the State Department were not interested in supporting Haitian-led solutions. The USA should play the role of encouraging consensus building and facilitating conversations to move things forward without interfering.

    Second, all deportations to Haiti must stop. They are not only in violation of international law. They are also highly immoral and unjust.

    Foreigners, myself included, are not best placed to prescribe solutions in Haiti: instead, we must support those created by Haitian people and Haitian organisations. It is time for the Haitian people to decide on the path forward, and we need to actively support, and follow.

    Civic space in Haiti is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow@elliehappel on Twitter.

     

  • Harmonisation, Participation and Coherence are Key to Realising the 2030 Agenda

    By Mandeep Tiwana and Tor Hodenfield 

    Two challenges – overlapping reporting requirements and less than universal compliance with human rights obligations – could be addressed by involving civil society more meaningfully in substantive processes. Furthermore, it is essential that positions on human rights matters that are taken at the UN Human Rights Council are followed up at the UN General Assembly and, most importantly, are implemented at the local level.

    Read on: International Institute for Sustainable Development

     

  • HONDURAS: ‘We must address the roots of the conflict: the handing over of natural resources’

    Edy TaboraCIVICUS speaks about the criminalisation of environmental, land and territorial defenders in Honduras with Edy Tábora, director of the law firm Justicia para los Pueblos (Justice for the Peoples) and coordinator of the group of defence lawyers of eight defenders of the Guapinol river who were recently released from detention.

    Why were the Guapinol defenders criminalised?

    The case of the eight Guapinol comrades deprived of their freedom is one of the most revealing expressions of the conflicts around mining and energy and the dispossession of land and natural resources in Honduras. Along with that of Berta Cáceres, the Guapinol case is one of the most significant ones.

    Berta’s case, which culminated in her assassination, was the first in a new wave of criminalisation surrounding dispossession projects following the 2009 military coup. Her case displayed all the typical elements: stigmatisation, surveillance, rupture of the social fabric, criminalisation. The same pattern can be seen in many parts of Honduras.

    After the coup, there was a privately conducted exploration of mineral deposits and businesspeople realised there was a lot of money to be made here. In the case of Guapinol, the process kicked off with the granting of an iron oxide mining concession – one of the largest in the country – to Los Pinares, a holding company registered in Panama, owned by an extremely wealthy Honduran family. Its mining business was developed jointly with the US company Nucor.

    Nucor claims to have withdrawn from the project in late 2019 due to the conflict triggered by the criminalisation of the Guapinol defenders, but there is no evidence of this and we do not believe it to be true. Los Pinares is simply the mining arm of a company whose power comes from airport concessions at home and abroad. It is a company with high-level political connections, and with so much power that in 2013 it succeeded in getting the National Congress to change the delimitation of the core zone of a national park.

    On 22 April 2013, the day before a new mining law came into force, applications were submitted for the two mining concessions related to the Guapinol case, both located in the core zone of the Montaña de Botaderos National Park. This had been declared a national park in 2012, as part of a ‘friendly settlement’ with the relatives of Carlos Escaleras, a social leader and environmental defender active in the 1980s and 1990s, who was assassinated for defending this mountain. The statute of the national park, which bears the name of Carlos Escaleras, prohibited the granting of mining concessions in its core zone and even its buffer zone.

    However, in 2014, engineers began to arrive on the mountain to collect information and check how deep down metal was deposited. People noticed this, began to demand an explanation and organised in the Municipal Committee of Public and Common Goods of Tocoa.

    In June 2016 they began to file complaints; some were filed by the Guapinol defenders who ended up in prison. They requested information from the institutions in charge of granting mining permits but only obtained some information in November 2019, after three years of back and forth. Tired of not getting answers, in June 2018 people started protesting at the Municipality of Tocoa Colón. It was then that systematic surveillance by the national police and Los Pinares security began.

    In August 2018, the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise held press conferences in which it complained to the government about an alleged loss of 20 billion dollars caused by ‘vandals’ protesting in various parts of Honduras.

    Criminalisation was a nationwide strategy, but the criminalisation of the Guapinol comrades was the most serious case. On 8 September 2018, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented the first accusation against 18 comrades for the crimes of usurpation, damage and usurpation of public space. Los Pinares appeared in the hearings as the accuser. Fourteen comrades were put on trial and all their cases were closed, but the fact that they were accused enabled the illegal eviction, in October 2018, of the Camp for Water and Life, one of many set up around Honduras. This was one of four charges brought by the Public Prosecutor’s Office as part of the strategy to criminalise resistance movements against mining and energy projects.

    In January 2019, in response to a complaint filed by Los Pinares, the Public Prosecutor’s Office filed another indictment against 32 people, including eight Guapinol comrades. The nature of the charges changed: it was no longer about usurpation of public space but about organised crime. Human rights defenders were now treated as taking part in organised crime, with charges including criminal association, theft, damage, unjust deprivation of liberty and aggravated arson. The case was assigned to the Specialised Court for Organised Crime, which meant it was transferred from local to national jurisdiction, in violation of the right to be tried by one’s natural judge. 

    Of the 32, a first group voluntarily submitted to trial in February 2019 and was kept in prison for only 10 days before the accusations against them were dismissed. The Guapinol eight, however, despite having voluntarily submitted to trial, were subjected to arbitrary detention from 26 August 2019 until 24 February 2022, when they finally regained their freedom.

    What did civil society do to secure their release?

    During the pandemic, Guapinol was one of the most high-profile cases globally. Not even the pandemic could stop our comrades’ defence. We quickly moved our activities online, and by late April 2020 we were already filing habeas corpus writs for our comrades’ right to health, alongside international organisations. Even under these conditions, we managed to set up discussions with important organisations, and three months after the pandemic began, we restarted our advocacy work, which meant that by the time the trial started, the case had become very well known around the world.

    Initially the case was promoted by the Coalition Against Impunity, which brings together more than 50 Honduran civil society organisations (CSOs). Later, many CSOs joined a kind of international support group for the case.

    First, we publicly denounced the violence and criminalisation against the Municipal Committee. Second, before our comrades were imprisoned, we documented the irregular granting of concessions for natural resources. Third, alongside several Honduran CSOs, we organised our comrades’ legal defence. A working group was then organised including national and international CSOs to support the defence. A lot of advocacy work was done, both nationally and internationally, to convince the public that this was a very important case and to counter the company’s account of the violence allegedly committed by our comrades.

    Documentary and testimonial work was crucial to expose our comrades’ real activism. We had many meetings with international CSOs. Canadian, US and European organisations and academics reported on the concession and the legal process. International CSOs filed amicus curiae – friend of the court – briefs with Honduran courts. We participated in multiple forums with national and international organisations.

    Many actions converged to create a powerful wave of demands for our comrades’ release. CIVICUS’s and Amnesty International’s campaigns, for example, allowed us to reach wider audiences. When the trial came, the case was widely known, and less than 24 hours after the end of the trial, in which our comrades were convicted with two thirds of the court’s votes, the Supreme Court of Justice annulled the whole process and ordered them to be released.

    This was an unprecedented decision, surely motivated by the strength of the demand for their freedom and by the evidence presented, both in and out of court, which demonstrated that our comrades were innocent and that they fight for a just cause that is of great interest to humanity.

    Are there other cases like the Guapinol case in Honduras?

    There are many defenders criminalised for defending land, including some from the Garífuna people, a marginalised minority, but they are not in prison. Many comrades were also imprisoned for defending democracy in the aftermath of 2017’s electoral fraud: around 30 people were imprisoned in maximum security prisons, but they are currently free. Most pending cases are being closed as a result of an amnesty issued by the National Congress in February 2022.

    In that sense, the Guapinol case was an exception, because this amnesty did not apply to them. What’s important about this case is that we managed to close the process by defending ourselves even with the highly questionable tools offered by the Honduran judicial system.

    However, there were other cases at the same time as Guapinol, such as that of the Indigenous comrades of the Lenca people in the department of La Paz, who were accused of forced displacement. They were imprisoned for more than a year for a crime that is the craziest thing I have ever heard: they were accused of displacing landowners. The Public Prosecutor’s narrative uses the made-up concept of ‘reverse racism’, according to which Indigenous peoples can also commit discrimination against minorities within their communities – the minority in this case being the landowners.

    Do you view Guapinol as part of a pattern of criminalisation against environmental defenders?

    We have detected patterns of criminalisation by sector in the cases we have monitored. For example, between 2011 and 2016 one of the most criminalised sectors was the student movement mobilised in defence of public education. Some 350 students, mostly university students, were criminalised.

    In the case of environmental defenders, we were able to document several patterns of criminalisation. Again and again, prosecutions were initiated only a few days after pronouncements by companies or employers’ organisations. The behaviour of the police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office has also been similar in all cases, with an initial focus on eviction and accusations changing over time following the same pattern. The narrative peddled by companies is always the same as well, often because they share the same lawyers.

    Criminalisation follows different patterns depending on the interests affected. The crimes people are accused of when challenging mining interests differ from those used to dispossess communities of land for the construction of tourism megaprojects or the plantation of African palm in the Atlantic zone, and from those used against peasants claiming access to land and crops.

    However, all the groups criminalised over the past 15 years have something in common: their resistance to the project, promoted since the 2000s, of handing over natural resources to private companies. Land grabbing was politically supported the state following the coup: from that moment on, national regulations were made more flexible to facilitate dispossession and the national police and the security forces of the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the judiciary were placed at the service of the private sector, which used them to criminalise land rights defenders.

    Has there been any improvement in the situation of environmental defenders since the new government came to power in January 2022?

    The new government brought several positive changes. First, while we had already achieved the closure of several emblematic cases, it decreed an amnesty that resulted in the closure of most legal proceedings against defenders, although there are still some cases pending.

    Second, the new government has put an end to the state’s stigmatisation of land struggles, which used to make use of information obtained by state security forces. And third, for the time being the government has not tackled conflicts with violence. People who protest are not being repressed.

    In recent years state violence was deployed to manage social protest, private violence was reflected in the assassination of defenders, and hybrid violence was seen in the area of surveillance. Over the four years of the current government we may no longer witness violent management of social protests, but there is a chance that state violence will be replaced by private corporate violence.

    What are the challenges ahead?

    The challenge right now is to address the causes of criminalisation. We have worked to defend and support our comrades criminalised by the state and private companies, but we have never been able to address what’s at the root of the conflict: the handing over of natural resources. Preventing the criminalisation of defenders is a big step, but we must address the issue of concessions, which in fact continue. Approved projects are waiting to be implemented. If we don’t seize the moment to address this problem, then when the government’s political colour changes, private companies will come back stronger and criminalisation will intensify.

    Moreover, social movements are worn out after 12 years of resistance against the handing over of natural resources. There must be accountability, reparations for victims and guarantees of legal security for defenders to be able to do their work. The hostile legal framework for exercising rights and defending human rights that has been established in recent decades must be reversed.

    Civic space in Honduras is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Learn more about the Guapinol case on itswebsite and follow@Edy_Tabora on Twitter.

     

  • HONG KONG: ‘This is a leader-full movement, ran by countless small networks of talented people’

    johnson yeungCIVICUS speaks about the protests that have rocked Hong Kong since June 2019 with Johnson Ching-Yin Yeung, democracy movement organiser and chairperson of the Hong Kong Civil Hub. The Hong Kong Civil Hub works to connect Hong Kong civil society with like-minded international stakeholders willing to help promote the rule of law, democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. 

    What triggered the mass protests that have taken place for several months?

    The protests had both short and long-term causes. When Hong Kong was decolonised in 1997, China signed an international treaty promising that people in Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy. In other words, Hong Kong would have its own government, legislation, courts and jurisdiction. But, long story short, China is not fulfilling that promise and Hong Kong is slowly becoming more like China due to Chinese intervention in our government and judiciary. Following the2014 Umbrella Movement, there have been increasing restrictions on the freedom of association, and for the first time in decades the government made use of colonial-era laws and outlawed organisations that advocated for Hong Kong’s independence. We expect restrictions on association, funding and exchanges with international organisations and civil society to increase over the next few years.

    Political participation has also been under attack. In 2017, for the first time since 1997, a few lawmakers were disqualified and expelled from the legislature. In the past three elections there have been disqualifications of candidates. This is becoming a major tactic used by China, based on claims that certain candidates are not respecting the law or they will not be loyal to Beijing. This explains why at some point people decided to take their grievances to the streets, given that most institutional channels for political demands are shut down.

    People took to the streets in 2014, under the Umbrella Movement. But protest is being severely punished. In April 2019, several pro-democracy leaders weresentenced to eight to 16 months in prison. Local leaders who advocate for political independence have also been punished with up to seven years of imprisonment.

    The current protests began in June 2019. On 9 June,more than a million people mobilised against the Extradition Bill, aimed at establishing a mechanism for transfers of fugitives to mainland China,  currently excluded in the existing law. Three days later, the legislature decided to continue the legislation process regardless of the opposition seen on the streets, so people besieged the parliamentary building, to which the Hong Kong police reacted with extreme brutality, firing teargas and rubber bullets, shooting into people’s heads and eyes.

    Amnesty International made a comprehensive report on the incidents of 12 June and concluded that the police had used excessive force, even though the protest had been authorised by the Hong Kong government.

    What changed after the repression of 12 June?

    There was a huge outcry because we had never experienced this kind of repression before, and two million people – almost one quarter of the population of Hong Kong – took part in the protests that took place four days after.

    From then on, protesters had a few additional demands on top of the initial demand that the extradition agreement be withdrawn, something that happened three months after the first protest. Protesters demanded the release of the arrested demonstrators and the withdrawal of the characterisation of the protests as riots, which is cause enough to hold someone and convict them: all it takes is for a defendant to have been present at the protest scene to face up to 10 years in prison for rioting. Protesters also demanded an independent inquiry into police activity. Over the past six months we’ve documented a lot of torture during detentions. Excessive force is used all the time against peaceful protests, so people really want the police to be held accountable. A recent survey showed that 80 per cent of the population support this demand. But the government is relying solely on the police to maintain order, so they cannot risk such investigation. Last but not least, there is the demand of universal suffrage and democratic rights, without which it is difficult to foresee anything else changing for real.

    What did not change was the government reaction and the police repression.Over the next few months, around 7,000 people were arrested – 40 per cent of them students, and 10 per cent minors – and around 120 people were charged. The fact that only 120 out of the 7,000 people arrested were charged shows that there have been lots of arbitrary arrests. The police would arrest people on grounds of illegal assembly. I was arrested in July when I was just standing in front of the corner line. I complied with police instructions, but I still got arrested.

    Thousands of people were injured during the protests. The official number is around 2,600 but this is a very conservative estimate because more than half of the injured people were not brought to public hospitals and did not seek medical assistance because they were afraid they would be arrested. Some doctors and nurses organised underground settlements to treat serious injuries like infections or rubber bullet injuries. But they had to remain anonymous and there simply were not enough of them and they didn’t have enough medical supply. There have been at least 12 suicides related to the protest movement. Lots of people have gone missing. Students and activists who are arrested are often deprived of their right to a lawyer and a phone call, and no one knows where they are detained. In many cases, it’s hard to verify whether people are in fact missing or have fled the country.

    Analysts have claimed that the strength of the current protests lies in their ‘leaderless’ character, something that prevents the government stopping the movement by jailing leaders. Do you agree with this characterisation?

    Many observers have seen the way we have used technology to coordinate the protests and they have concluded that our movement has no leaders. It is true that our movement is characterised by the decentralisation of communications and mobilisation. But this does not mean it is aleaderless movement. On the contrary, the Hong Kong protest movement is a leader-full movement: it is full of leaders and is run by countless small networks of talented people capable of organising and coordinating action on their own.

    While the demography of the protests is quite diverse in terms of age, background and social class, more than the 50 per cent of protesters are female, and the major force of the protests are people aged 20 to 49. There is also a strong presence of highly educated people: more than 85 per cent of protesters have tertiary education or above.

    But a notable characteristic of this disparate protest movement has been its unity, which may have resulted from the longstanding repression of civil society. When the leaders of the 2014 protests – most of them young students – were sentenced to prison, older people showed up at the protests because they felt that they had not been doing enough. People also united against police brutality, because there was no previous history of such a serious crackdown on protesters and people felt morally responsible to show up in support.

    Can you tell us more about how the protest movement has used technology for organising and coordinating action?

    During the first few months at least, people would rely on their cellphones and the Telegram app. People would have strategic discussions and channel these discussions into a Telegram channel. These are not the safest communication tools but they can hold more than 3,000 subscribers, which means that you can speak to 3,000 people at the same time, you can share action timetables, the site of protests or the location of the police with a huge number of people. We use a live map to inform protesters where the police are and where the protests are taking place, so they can avoid being arrested. Another app shows which businesses and stores are supportive of the movement. Pro-democracy businesses appear in yellow, while pro-government ones appear in blue.

    We also use Telegram bots for international advocacy. A group of people is dedicated to disseminating information on Twitter and Interact.

    We also use social media as a recruitment tool because after an action is held, people use social media to reflect about the strategies used and assess the outcomes. But after a few months, people started using online apps less and less. They would instead form their own groups and organise their own actions. There are frontier leaders, first leaders, people working on documentation, people who organise street protests – each is doing their own thing while at the same time warning others about clashes and organising timetables. This is how we use civic tech.

    How has the movement managed to grow and thrive in adverse conditions?

    Several elements explain why people keep showing up and why the movement is so resilient against government repression. First, people deploy their actions in their own neighbourhoods. We disperse action rather than concentrate it, because when we use concentration tactics, such as holding a protest in front of a government building, we become an easy target for the police. In the face of dispersed actions, the police would try to disperse protesters but would often end up attacking passers-by or people going about their business in their own neighbourhoods. For many people not involved directly in the protests, this was also a wake-up call and functioned as a recruitment mechanism: police brutality ceased to be a far-away problem; instead, it hit home and became personal, triggering a protective reaction.

    A tactic commonly used by protesters is the Lennon Wall, in which people post messages in public spaces, which creates a sense of community and helps organise public support. Lennon Walls appear in various places and people use them to send and receive information about the protests. People also put posters in bus stops so when people are waiting for the bus they can get information about the protests. People sing in protest in shopping malls. This way, people use their lunchtime to sing a song and protest while going about their business, and they reach people who don’t read the news and don’t pay much attention to politics. That is one of the key lessons here.

    Another key lesson concerns the importance of the unity between the moderate side and the radical front of the protests. Given that even authorised protests would be dispersed with teargas for no reason, some people began resorting to more militant actions to combat the police and protect their space. Some social movement analysts claim that radical incidents diminish popular support for the movement, but this does not seem to be happening in Hong Kong. In a recent survey, more than 60 per cent of respondents said they understood the use of violence by the people. I suppose that one reason why people do not reject militant actions is that they view the government and the police as responsible for most of the violence, and view violence by protesters as a fairly understandable response. Another reason is that radical protesters have been careful not to target ordinary people but only the police and pro-government businesses.

    What else have you learned in the process?

    A big lesson that we’ve learned concerns the effectiveness of creativity and humour to offset government repression. Protesters used laser tags to disable cameras used for the surveillance of protesters, so people started to get arrested for buying laser tags. After a student was arrested for possessing a laser tag, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in a public space and used laser tags to point at a public building. Another example of an effective response took place in early October 2019. There is a law that states that people can be jailed for a year if they wear a mask or anything covering their faces, so people responded in defiance, forming a human chain in which everyone was wearing some kind of mask.

    We’ve also come to understand the importance of global solidarity and leveraging geopolitics. The Hong Kong diaspora has organised a lot of lobbying and advocacy in various cities around the world. We have also lobbied foreign governments and supported the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bill that was introduced in the US Congress following the Umbrella Movement in 2014, but that was only passed in November 2019. This law requires the US government to impose sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, and requires the US Department of State and other agencies to conduct an annual review to determine whether changes in Hong Kong's political status – namely its relationship with mainland China – justify changing the unique and favourable trade relations between the USA and Hong Kong. This is huge, and we are trying to replicate this in other countries, including Australia, Canada, Italy and New Zealand.

    We have also done advocacy at the United Nations (UN), where some resolutions about police brutality have been passed. But the UN is quite weak at the moment, and aside from the documentation of human rights violations there is not much they can do. Any resolution regarding the protests will be blocked by China at the UN Security Council. That said, a thorough UN investigation on police brutality would send a strong message anyway. We have been communicating with human rights civil society organisations to do more advocacy at the UN.

    We are also looking for alternative tactics such as working with unions in France, because water cannons are manufactured in France and we hope something can be done about it.

    What have the protests achieved so far?

    The democratic camp has made a lot of progress. In November 2019 we had elections for the District Council. True, the District Council doesn’t have any real political power because it carries out neighbourhood duties, like garbage collection and traffic management. Still, in the latest election 388 out of 452 seats went to the pro-democracy camps, whereas back in 2015 they were only 125 pro-democracy representatives, compared with 299 who were pro-Beijing.

    That said, I don’t think the pro-democracy movement should put too much of its energy into institutional politics because the District Council is not a place where the political crisis can be solved. However, the elections served as a solid foundation for organisers to organise people at the local level.

    According to the polls, almost 90 per cent of the people supported independent investigation of human rights violations, more than 70 per cent demanded the resignation of the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, and 75 per cent supported universal suffrage. That kind of popular support has remained stable for several months, which is pretty amazing.

    What are the challenges ahead?

    While there is no sign of protests calming down, there is also no sign of the government making concessions anytime soon. Violence is escalating on both sides, and the protest movement might lose public support if some demonstrators decide to go underground. The Chinese government will not let itself be challenged by protesters, so it is infiltrating organisations and tightening the grip on civil society. Organised civil society is relatively weak, and Beijing can easily interfere with academic institutions, schools and the media by appointing more allies and dismissing those who are critical of the government. The next five years will likely be tough ones for civil society and democracy in Hong Kong, and we will have to work to strengthen civil society’s resilience.

    Another important issue is that a lot of young protesters are traumatised by the violence they have witnessed and experienced. We have support groups with social workers and psychologists, but they cannot provide support in their official capacity or they would find themselves under pressure by their employers who take money from the government. Social workers are also at risk and the police constantly harass them. To strengthen self-care and gain resilience for the battle ahead, we need to train more people and create support groups to help people cope, control their stress and share their stories.

    Another potential challenge is the limited sustainability of global solidarity. Right now Hong Kong is in the spotlight, but this will not last long. Our struggle is for the long haul, but the world will not be paying attention for much longer. So we will need to build more substantial and permanent alliances and partnerships with civil society groups around the world. We need to empower local groups and give people new skills regarding international law, advocacy and campaigning. The protest movement is not going anywhere. It’s going to be a long struggle so we will have to train more organisers. We will disseminate the knowledge gained by the protesters, so when they are sent to jail others will take over.

    Civic space in China is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with the Hong Kong Civil Hub through itswebsite and follow@hkjohnsonyeung on Twitter.

     

  • Hong Kong: A year on, the National Security Law has crushed civic freedoms

    New research on the state of civic freedoms in Hong Kong - a look at restrictions over the past year

    CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, is extremely concerned about the alarming regression of civic freedoms in Hong Kong. One year one from the passage of the draconian National Security Law, our research shows it has been weaponised to target dozens of pro-democracy activists and has created a chilling effect within civil society.

    The National SecurityLaw (NSL) punishes four types of activities: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with “foreign forces”, all carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison.These offences are vaguely defined and can easily become catch-all offences to prosecute activists and critics with potentially heavy penalties.

    TheNSLestablishes new national security bodieswhich are partially or fully controlled by People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials, in violation of the Basic Law.It gives Hong Kong police sweeping new powers including to conduct warrantless searches and covert surveillance, and to seize travel documents of those suspected of violating the security law. The law also contravenes the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary and undermines the right to a fair trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal, guaranteed under Article 14 of the InternationalCovenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

    "The national security law has become the most dangerous threat to civic freedoms in Hong Kong and has allowed for any form of dissent to be criminalised. The law has increased the climate of fear in Hong Kong and has been weaponised to target government critics, including people who are merely expressing their views or protesting peacefully”,said David Kode, Head of Advocacy at CIVICUS

    Morethan ahundred people have been arrested underthe National Security Law including pro-democracyactivists,formerlawmakers,lawyers,journalists and students.Activists have been accused of inciting or abetting secession or subversion just for showing leaflets and banners with reference to Hong Kong Independence or for their social media posts. 

    In January2021, 55 people,including pro-democracy activists,opposition candidates, former lawmakers and lawyers, were arrested and detained under law for ‘subversion’ for holding and participating in primaryelections held by Hong Kong’s pro-democratic party in July 2020. 47 of the activists have been charged.

    TheNSL has alsodramatically changed the environment for civil society in Hong Kong, greatly impeding the ability of civil society to carryout their work.Some have quit on the eve of the law’s introduction while others have exercised greater caution in their activities. The chilling effect of the crackdown on the entire sector cannot be overstated.

    The lawhas also been deployed against the media. Media owner Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, a major pro-democracy newspaper, has been detained since December2020. He is facing multiple charges, including ‘colluding with foreign forces’. In May 2021, authorities announcedthey had frozen assets belonging to Lai under the national security law marking the first time a company has been targeted by the controversial legislation.  On 17 June, six of the newspaper’s staff and executives were arrested for their role inthe publication of more than 30 articles that called on foreign countries to impose sanctions. All were charged under the NSL. Apple Daily ceased operations on 26 June.

    The use of the national security law to silence activism is a violation of international law. The repression against pro-democracy activists and other critics has led to the dismantling of civil society in Hong Kong, forcing many to flee the territory. The international community must not remain silent in the face of such abuses but must stand up and stand in solidarity with those defending human rights” said David Kode.

    Since 2019, theHong Kong authorities have also deployed other laws to criminalise peaceful protests in particular the Public Order Ordinance which has been used to charge activists holding and participating in an ‘unauthorised assembly’, It carries a maximumfive-year sentence.  The UN Human Rights Committee has criticised the law, saying that “it may facilitate excessive restriction” to basic rights. 

    Pro-democracyactivist Joshua Wong was sentenced to 13 and a half months in December 2020 for a mass protest outside a police station in June 2019. Wong’slong-time fellow activists Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were also sentenced to 10 and seven months in prison for ‘incitement,’ referring to their use of a megaphone to shout slogans during the protest. 

    In April 2021,the courts sentenced ten pro-democracy activists to between eight and 18 months in prison for gatherings that were part of a series of mass protests triggeredby the proposed Extradition Bill. In May 2021, eight activists were sentenced for organising a protest in October 2019. More recently, On 4 June 2021, the authorities bannedthe annual Tiananmen massacre vigil for a second straight year and arrested barrister and activist Chow Hang Tung for breaching section 17A(1D) of the Public Order Ordinance by ‘promoting an unauthorised assembly’. 


    More information

    Download the Hong Kong research brief here.


    Interviews

    To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher  and 

     

  • Hong Kong: A year on, the National Security Law has crushed civic freedoms

    New research on the state of civic freedoms in Hong Kong - a look at restrictions over the past year

    CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, is extremely concerned about the alarming regression of civic freedoms in Hong Kong. One year one from the passage of the draconian National Security Law, our research shows it has been weaponised to target dozens of pro-democracy activists and has created a chilling effect within civil society.

    The National SecurityLaw (NSL) punishes four types of activities: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with “foreign forces”, all carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison.These offences are vaguely defined and can easily become catch-all offences to prosecute activists and critics with potentially heavy penalties.

    TheNSLestablishes new national security bodieswhich are partially or fully controlled by People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials, in violation of the Basic Law.It gives Hong Kong police sweeping new powers including to conduct warrantless searches and covert surveillance, and to seize travel documents of those suspected of violating the security law. The law also contravenes the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary and undermines the right to a fair trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal, guaranteed under Article 14 of the InternationalCovenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

    "The national security law has become the most dangerous threat to civic freedoms in Hong Kong and has allowed for any form of dissent to be criminalised. The law has increased the climate of fear in Hong Kong and has been weaponised to target government critics, including people who are merely expressing their views or protesting peacefully”,said David Kode, Head of Advocacy at CIVICUS

    Morethan ahundred people have been arrested underthe National Security Law including pro-democracyactivists,formerlawmakers,lawyers,journalists and students.Activists have been accused of inciting or abetting secession or subversion just for showing leaflets and banners with reference to Hong Kong Independence or for their social media posts. 

    In January2021, 55 people,including pro-democracy activists,opposition candidates, former lawmakers and lawyers, were arrested and detained under law for ‘subversion’ for holding and participating in primaryelections held by Hong Kong’s pro-democratic party in July 2020. 47 of the activists have been charged.

    TheNSL has alsodramatically changed the environment for civil society in Hong Kong, greatly impeding the ability of civil society to carryout their work.Some have quit on the eve of the law’s introduction while others have exercised greater caution in their activities. The chilling effect of the crackdown on the entire sector cannot be overstated.

    The lawhas also been deployed against the media. Media owner Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, a major pro-democracy newspaper, has been detained since December2020. He is facing multiple charges, including ‘colluding with foreign forces’. In May 2021, authorities announcedthey had frozen assets belonging to Lai under the national security law marking the first time a company has been targeted by the controversial legislation.  On 17 June, six of the newspaper’s staff and executives were arrested for their role inthe publication of more than 30 articles that called on foreign countries to impose sanctions. All were charged under the NSL. Apple Daily ceased operations on 26 June.

    The use of the national security law to silence activism is a violation of international law. The repression against pro-democracy activists and other critics has led to the dismantling of civil society in Hong Kong, forcing many to flee the territory. The international community must not remain silent in the face of such abuses but must stand up and stand in solidarity with those defending human rights” said David Kode.

    Since 2019, theHong Kong authorities have also deployed other laws to criminalise peaceful protests in particular the Public Order Ordinance which has been used to charge activists holding and participating in an ‘unauthorised assembly’, It carries a maximumfive-year sentence.  The UN Human Rights Committee has criticised the law, saying that “it may facilitate excessive restriction” to basic rights. 

    Pro-democracyactivist Joshua Wong was sentenced to 13 and a half months in December 2020 for a mass protest outside a police station in June 2019. Wong’slong-time fellow activists Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were also sentenced to 10 and seven months in prison for ‘incitement,’ referring to their use of a megaphone to shout slogans during the protest. 

    In April 2021,the courts sentenced ten pro-democracy activists to between eight and 18 months in prison for gatherings that were part of a series of mass protests triggeredby the proposed Extradition Bill. In May 2021, eight activists were sentenced for organising a protest in October 2019. More recently, On 4 June 2021, the authorities bannedthe annual Tiananmen massacre vigil for a second straight year and arrested barrister and activist Chow Hang Tung for breaching section 17A(1D) of the Public Order Ordinance by ‘promoting an unauthorised assembly’. 


    More information

    Download the Hong Kong research brief here.


    Interviews

    To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher  and 

     

     

  • Human rights at risk for ASEAN citizens

    By Ichal Supriadi (Asia Democracy Network) and Josef Benedict (CIVICUS)

    As the 10 heads of state from ASEAN gather for the group’s latest summit in Singapore this week to discuss security, trade, and tensions in the South China Sea, the state of human rights and democracy in the region will once again be sidelined. 

    Read on: The Jakarta Post 

     

     

  • Human Rights Council: Restrictions on civil society will curtail any chance of building back better

    Statement at the 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

    Thank you, Madame President; High Commissioner.

    We welcome your update and strongly agree that recovering better requires ensuring participation for all. In this very difficult year, we are encouraged that civic activism has continued as people have mobilised to demand their rights.

    But across the world, civil society has been impeded in its work.  The CIVICUS Monitor shows that in the context of COVID-19 measures, protest rights have been violated and restrictions on freedom of expression continue as states enact overly broad emergency legislation that limits human rights.

    We reiterate that restrictions on civil society will curtail any chance of building back better. States should indeed be investing in protecting and promoting a free and independent civil society at this crucial time.

    The Council has the opportunity to act immediately on a number of situations where civic space is being threatened. In Sri Lanka, attacks against civil society are compounding grave failures of accountability. In Nicaragua, where ahead of elections, restrictions on civic space and expressions of dissent are likely to escalate. Myanmar, where we are inspired by the courage of people who risk lives and freedom every day to protest the coup, who continue to fear violent crackdown on dissenting voices. In India, where the government has continued its persecution of human rights defenders, student leaders, journalists and other critics, including through restrictive laws, prolonged pre-trial detention and excessive force perpetrated against protesters. 

    We call on the Council this Session to take measures to support civil society by acting now, on the situations brought before it. Situations which require immediate action.

     

     

  • Human rights in Eritrea: Press restrictions persist

    Statement at the 43rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council

    CIVICUS and Eritrean partner organisations welcome the work of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea and thank you for your update. We welcome this crucial continued scrutiny, currently the only way in which human rights in Eritrea can be examined.

    The government is failing to make progress and the human rights situation in Eritrea does not show any improvement. There have been repeated reports of arrests and rights abuses since the Special Rapporteur’s latest report of June 2019. On 4 February a conscripted man was shot in Mendefera while trying to escape from illegal detention. This incident took place in the context of the country’s indefinite and non-paid military conscription policy and the government’s notorious shoot-to-kill practice.

    The government continues to restrict the press. News outlets shuttered in 2001 have not resumed, and their 10 journalists remain in detention with no trial in sight. The government still operates a ban on independent press and NGOs.

    These concerns are exacerbated by the continued refusal by the Eritrean government to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur. Lack of access granted and lack of political will to address the worsening human rights situation in the country makes it increasingly clear that the only available access to justice for human rights violations suffered in Eritrea is at the international level, and we urge the UN to use all available mechanisms to ensure such accountability can be secured.

    Eritrea is a member of this Council and it is imperative that it upholds its human rights obligations. We urge the Eritrean government to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur and to review its policies and practices including by: ending the practice of conscripting youth into the army; unconditionally releasing political prisoners; guaranteeing fundamental rights; and allowing space for dissent views on Eritrea’s governance to be freely expressed.  

    Civic space in Eritrea is rated as Closed by the CIVICUS Monitor (see country profile page)

     

  • Human rights monitoring needed in Democratic Republic of Congo

    Letter sent to UN Member State Missions
    Re: Creating a dedicated country-wide human rights monitoring and reporting mechanism on the Democratic Republic of Congo at the UN Human Rights Council

    Your excellency,

    We, the undersigned Congolese, regional, and international organizations, write to urge your delegation to support the creation of a country-wide human rights monitoring and reporting mechanism on the Democratic Republic of Congo at the upcoming 39th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

    The ongoing human rights violations committed by Congolese security forces and armed groups throughout the country – coupled with a pattern of impunity and the potential for renewed outbreak of large-scale violence in the coming months, amidst a crackdown on human rights in the context of the uncertain electoral process – necessitate increased and dedicated human rights monitoring and public reporting to help prevent further abuses and achieve the goals of accountability.

    Congo is facing a human rights crisis, as the authorities clamp down on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly of critics who insist that President Joseph Kabila has stayed in power beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit by delaying elections and suppressing dissent. The elections are now scheduled to be held on 23 December 2018. Civil society and the political opposition in Congo have expressed serious concerns about the credibility, fairness, and inclusivity of the electoral process, and risks of further delays. There is a real risk of more crackdowns and potential political violence as the election deadline nears, with possible consequences throughout the volatile region.

    From August 1 to 7, Congolese security forces fired teargas and live ammunition to disperse political opposition supporters, killing at least two people – including a child – and injuring at least seven others with gunshot wounds, during the candidate registration period for presidential elections. Authorities also restricted the movement of opposition leaders, arrested dozens of opposition supporters, and prevented one presidential aspirant, Moïse Katumbi, from entering the country to file his candidacy.

    Since 2015, Congolese security forces have killed nearly 300 people during largely peaceful protests. Congolese authorities have banned meetings and demonstrations by the opposition and civil society groups. Hundreds of opposition supporters and democracy activists have been jailed. Many have been held in secret detention facilities without charge or access to family members or lawyers. Others have been tried and convicted on trumped-up charges. The government has also shut down Congolese media outlets, expelled international journalists and researchers, and periodically curtailed access to the internet and text messaging.

    The human rights crisis has been linked to political tensions and violence in Congo, which could worsen as the election approaches. Armed groups and security forces have attacked civilians in many parts of the country, including the Kasaïs, the Kivus, Ituri, and Tanganyika. Today, some 4.5 million Congolese are displaced from their homes. More than 100,000 Congolese have fled abroad since January 2018, raising the risk of increased regional instability.

    At the Human Rights Council in June, the team of international experts on the Kasai region presented their final report, expressing shock at the magnitude of the violence and the dire human rights situation that has persisted since 2016. An estimated 5,000 people, and possibly many more, have been in killed, and more than 1.4 million people displaced from their homes. No one has been held to

    account for the murders in March 2017 of UN investigators Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalán and the disappearance of the four Congolese who accompanied them, and only a few low-level suspected perpetrators have been prosecuted for the violence against Congolese in the region. In July 2018, the Council requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to dispatch a team of two international human rights experts to monitor and report on the implementation by Congolese authorities of the Kasai investigation’s recommendations.

    Since early this year, violence intensified in various parts of northeastern Congo’s Ituri province, with terrifying incidents of massacres, rapes, and decapitation. Armed groups launched deadly attacks on villages, killing scores of civilians, torching hundreds of homes, and displacing an estimated 350,000 people.

    Armed groups and security forces in the Kivu provinces also continue to attack civilians. According to the Kivu Security Tracker, assailants, including state security forces, killed more than 580 civilians and abducted at least 940 others in North and South Kivu since January 2018.

    In the southeastern province of Tanganyika, more than 200 people were killed, 250,000 others displaced, and numerous villages and displacement camps burned since intercommunal violence broke out in mid-2016. Nobody has been held to account to date, and the situation remains volatile.

    Considering the scale and complexity of the human rights challenges in Congo, and the many regions in the country requiring scrutiny, a dedicated mechanism is needed with the mandate to cover the country as a whole which can conduct the needed monitoring and reporting to the Human Rights Council and make recommendations to the government of Congo and the international community with a view to preventing further human rights violations and abuses and achieving accountability. The Council should create such a mechanism in September to complement the work of the UN joint human rights office in Congo and ensure adequate scrutiny and reporting of human rights violations and abuses in the electoral context.

    We urge your delegation to support the creation of such a mandate.

    With assurances of our highest consideration,

    11.11.11
    Action pour la Restauration de la Paix et la Justice (ARPJ)
    Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l’Homme (AEDH)
    Agir pour des Élections Transparentes et Apaisées (AETA)
    Amnesty International
    Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
    Association Africaine de Défense des Droits de l’Homme (ASADHO)
    Association Congolaise pour l’Accès à la Justice (ACAJ)
    Association des Femmes Juristes Congolaises (AFEJUCO)
    Carrefour pour la Justice, le Développement et les Droits Humains (CJHD-RDC)
    CCFD – Terre Solidaire
    Centre d’Observation des Droits de l’Homme et d’Assistance Sociale (CODHAS)
    Centre d’Études et de Formation Populaire pour les Droits de l’Homme (CEFOP/DH)
    Cercle National de Réflexion sur la Jeunesse en RDC (CNRJ-RDC)
    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    Commission Justice et Paix Belgique
    Ecumenical Network Central Africa (OENZ)
    European Network for Central Africa (EurAc)
    Fastenopfer/Action de Carême
    Femmes et Enfants en Détresses/Uvira et Fizi (SOS FED)
    Forum réfugiés Cosi
    Franciscans International
    Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
    Groupe d’Associations de Défense des Droits de l’Homme et de la Paix (GADHOP)
    Groupe Lotus
    Human Rights Watch
    International Commission of Jurists
    International Federation for Human Rights Leagues (FIDH)
    International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI)
    Justicia Asbl
    La Voix des Sans Voix pour les Droits de l’Homme (VSV)
    Ligue des Électeurs (LE)
    Never Again Coalition
    Nouvelles Dynamiques pour le Développement Rural Intégral (NODRI)
    Œil des Victimes des Violations des Droits de l’Homme (OVVDH)
    Pax Christi International
    PMU
    Protection International
    Réseau des Femmes pour les Droits des Enfants et des Femmes (REFEDEF)
    Réseau des Victimes de l’Insécurité au Congo (REVI Asbl)
    Réseau pour la Réforme du Secteur de Sécurité et Justice (RRSSJ)
    SAPI
    Secours Catholique – Caritas France
    The African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS)
    The Enough Project
    Tournons la Page
    World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)

     

  • Human Rights Situations of Concern: Ethiopia

     

    While acknowledging the integral role that this Council plays in holding governments to account for wilfully persecuting individuals and groups who speak truth to power, we would like to use this opportunity to celebrate the recent civil and political liberation ushered in by sustained protest movements in Ethiopia,  while further encouraging the government of Ethiopia to ensure that this transformation is sustainable rather than fleeting, systemic rather than cosmetic. 

    For nearly a decade CIVICUS and its partners have stood before the Council urging it to address the devastatingly restrictive environment for civic space in Ethiopia. We warmly appreciate the determination of several governments including Ireland, Canada, Germany and Norway as well as a number of Special Procedure mandate holders who continued to voice their concerns about the unrelenting attacks on civic freedoms in Ethiopia. 

    Today, in large part due to the uncompromising and audacious resoluteness of protesters and human rights defenders, Ethiopia is on the precipice of emerging as country ruled by pluralism rather than authoritarianism. 

    However, this transformation will remain incomplete if the Government of Ethiopia does not take all necessary steps to ensure inclusive participation in policy making, ensure a free and safe environment in advance of upcoming elections, address long standing grievances especially pertaining to access to land, and hold to account all state officials responsible for grave right violations. 

    We urge all stakeholders, including state, civil society and UN agencies to endow this evolving transformation with the requisite support and resources.


    Civicspace is rated as Repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor

     

  • INDIA: ‘CSOs that dare speak truth to power are attacked with politically motivated charges’

    Mrinal Sharma

    CIVICUS speaks to human rights lawyer and researcher Mrinal Sharma about the state of civic freedoms in India. Mrinal works to help unlawfully detained human rights defenders, asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons in India. She worked as Policy Advisor with Amnesty International India until the Government of India forced the organisation to shut down in October 2020. Her work with Amnesty focused on people who are arbitrarily deprived of their nationality in Assam, the barriers against access to justice in Kashmir and the demonisation of minorities in India. Mrinal had previously worked with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Refugee Solidarity Network.

     

  • INDIA: ‘The government is dealing with dissent in very concerning ways’

    Sudha BharadwajCIVICUS speaks Sudha Bharadwaj, a lawyer and long-time human rights defender working for the rights of workers and Indigenous peoples in India.

    Sudha wasarrested and detained in August 2018 under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and accused of having links with Maoist terrorist organisations. Alongside 15 other human rights defenders, she was further accused of conspiring to incite violence among the Dalit community. Despiteproof that incriminating evidence against them was planted,concerns expressed by United Nations (UN) experts about the arbitrary charges and UN calls to release political prisoners from crowded jails during the pandemic, requests for Sudha’s release, including on health grounds, were repeatedlyrejected. She was finallyreleased on bail in December 2021 after three years in detention.

    How did you get involved in human rights work?

    For the last 35 years I have been working in Chhattisgarh, an area in eastern India that is very rich in mineral resources. I began around 1986 as a trade unionist and worked with a legendary union leader, Shankar Guha Niyog, who was organising iron ore miners. Conditions were appalling. Workers were not unionised, working hours were long, wages were very paltry and even the very basic labour laws of our country were not being applied.

    I became a lawyer basically because my trade union needed one. I graduated in 2000, at the age of 40. I initially took up matters of our own union and later I shifted to work at the high court, where I realised contractual workers, farmers resisting land acquisition and Adivasi Indigenous groups resisting mining projects were forced to face very expensive corporate lawyers without any real legal assistance. They needed lawyers who understood them and who could devise legal strategies compatible with the tactics of their movements.

    I started a group of lawyers to provide legal aid to unions, farmers’ and village organisations, Adivasi communities, and civil society organisations (CSOs). Around this time, I became involved in the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), one of the oldest human rights organisations in India. We dealt with various human rights issues, including attacks and harassment of minorities and the criminalisation of Dalits and Adivasis under false accusations of having links with armed Maoist groups, also called Naxals. We took up several cases in which security forces fired on villagers accused of being Naxalites. We were eventually able to prove that these were false accusations.

    I dealt with cases against big corporations, so I made powerful enemies. By taking up cases of Adivasis I also annoyed the government. In 2018 I was teaching a course at the national lawyer’s university in Delhi and that’s when I was arrested.

    Can you tell us about your experience in detention?

    Because the case was in Pune, I was initially sent to the women’s wing of the Yervada central jail, which is a prison for convicts. I was taken there with another activist, Shoma Sen. As soon as we were brought there, we experienced attacks on our dignity. We were asked to strip and squat. We were isolated: kept in separate cells, unable to communicate with other prisoners, led out into a yard for only half an hour a day. We were under constant surveillance.

    In the winter it was very cold. We spend most of the time reading, although we struggled to get books. Because the library was in the men’s side of the jail, only 25 books were brought at a time. We were allowed to keep only two or three with us in our cell. We also had issues with access to water and sometimes had to carry in buckets. Shoma struggled with severe arthritis. 

    Later on, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over our case, so we were moved to Byculla jail in Mumbai. This jail was extremely overcrowded, and we lacked any privacy. We would sleep right next to one another on coffin-sized strips of the floor which were allotted to us by the kamwali (staff) in charge of the barracks. There were also limited bathrooms to share.

    Social distancing was impossible, and during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, many detainees got infected and were stuffed in a quarantine barrack. I did not become seriously sick but both Shoma and I requested medical bail due to underlying conditions. This was systematically denied.

    Due to the pandemic, we were totally cut off from the outside world and were not taken to the courts for about five or six months. Then PUCL and other groups requested the Bombay High Courts to authorise telephone calls and we were allowed to speak to our families for 10 minutes once a week. Our lawyers could talk to us by sending an email to the jail, and the jail would allow us to phone them back - for 10 minutes, twice a week. That’s how we were able to tell them about prison conditions. I also tried to help people around us who were old or sick to write petitions.

    How did you feel when you were finally granted bail, and what’s next?

    The bail order was issued on 1 December 2021. I felt extremely disappointed that other activists linked to the case were not released with me. My request for bail was accepted on technical grounds. I heard the NIA appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn my bail, but it was immediately dismissed.

    On 8 December I was taken to the court, given cash bail, and asked to produce sureties. When I came back to the jail, many detainees celebrated for me and gave me their requests. I was released the next day.

    The bail conditions have restricted me to Mumbai, which is not my city. Friends have been very helpful, but I don’t have a home or work here so I’m still trying to adjust to the situation. I would like to continue my practice on behalf of prisoners and trade unions. For now, I have to attend court hearings and check-in at the police station every two weeks.

    How have the conditions for activism in India changed while you were in jail?

    Even before I went to jail things were already challenging, but since I was released, I have seen increasing attacks against minorities, notably Muslims. There has been a rise in hate speech, which seems to be manufactured and copiously funded, especially on social media.

    The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed in December 2019, is discriminatory against minorities. There was a strong movement against the CAA law, in many places led by Muslim women, but this was shut down due to the pandemic.

    We are also seeing that many institutions that are supposed to be independent – such as the Election Commission and investigating agencies – are being manipulated by the government. There are even concerns about the independence of the National Human Rights Commission, which has failed to take a proactive role on many important issues. The undermining of these institutions will affect their roles in their future, even if the government changes.

    The government is dealing with dissent in very concerning ways. One clear example is the increasing surveillance of journalists, activists, and advocates. A lot of us involved in the case had our phones infected by Pegasus spyware. We have approached the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Committee looking into the use of Pegasus against Indian citizens and it has decided to request our phones from the NIA and undertake an inquiry.

    There are also concerns about the impacts of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) on civil society. If you advocate for workers, Indigenous peoples or poor communities, your work is considered a political activity and you are barred from doing it. Larger CSOs with FCRA registration should be able to support smaller CSOs on the ground, but the government is depriving them of the ability of distributing funds to local grassroots groups and reaching out to real beneficiaries.

    Where do you see positive change coming from in India?

    One beacon of hope is the farmers’ movement. The opposition was against the farm bills proposed by the government, but it was unable to stop them. It was farmers themselves who stopped them, by standing their ground for almost one year in the heat, cold and rain. Thousands of criminal cases were brought against farmers, and they were smeared as terrorists. But they managed to hold their ground, build unity and push back. The key lesson here is that people must get organised.

    I think that if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, the anti-CAA law movement would have had similar results. Students are also an important force, but we are seeing them facing attacks to prevent them organising and speaking up. But they will find a way to continue their struggle.

    At a time when many internal mechanisms are failing us, international scrutiny and pressure are also key to improving the situation. There are international standards India cannot ignore. But of late, the Indian government has taken a problematic attitude towards UN bodies, including UN missions to Kashmir, and has gone as far as preventing people from speaking at or participating in international conferences. When UN Special Rapporteurs have made comments on human rights in India, the response has been dismissive and disparaging.

    The government often uses terrorism and national security as an excuse for all kinds of human rights abuses. It is important to put the spotlight on this and not let the government get away with it.

    Civic space inIndia is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. 


    Sudha was one of our #StandAsMyWitness faces. The campaign advocates for the release of Human Rights Defenders behind bars. In 2021, we welcomed the news of the release of three Human Rights Defenders -including Sudha-, and we continue to use our voices to call for the release of all other detained activists. Head to the official campaign page to read more about the current faces featured and join us in standing as their witnesses!

    StandAsMyWitness released HRDs

     

     

  • India: Chronology of harassment against human rights defender Khurram Parvez

    Khurram ParvezHuman rights defender Khurram Parvez, 44, is the Programme Coordinator of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) which is a coalition of various campaign, research and advocacy organisations based in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir which monitor and investigate human right abuses. He is also the Chairperson of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearance (AFAD) a collective of non-governmental organisations from ten Asian countries that campaign on the issue of enforced disappearances.

    Khurram has documented serious human rights violations in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, including enforced disappearances and unlawful killings. He was detained in November 2021 and is accused ofbeing in contact with individuals linked to a Pakistani militant group. He is facing multiple charges  under the Penal Code and draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 (UAPA), related to conspiracy and terrorism, which CIVICUS believes have been trumped up by the authorities because of his activism.

    He has faced systematic harassment to advocate against human rights violations in Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir. In September 2016, the Indian authorities arrested him a day after he was barred from travelling to Switzerland to attend the 33rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. He was charged under the draconian Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows detention without charge for up to two years. He was released after 76 days in detention.

    In October 2020, nine simultaneous raids were conducted by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on the houses and offices of several human rights defenders, non-governmental organisations and newspapers in Jammu and Kashmir - including the house of Khurram Parvez.

    2021

    22 November 2021: Officials from the National Investigation Agency (NIA), assisted by the local police, conducted raids on the house of Khurram Parvez and the JKCCS office in the city of Srinagar, in Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory, for approximately 14 hours. Parvez’s mobile phone, laptop, and several books were seized. On the evening of the same day, Khurram Parvez was taken for questioning to the premises of the NIA in Srinagar. At around 6pm, his family members received a phone call from NIA officers who requested them to bring him clothes. Upon arrival at the premises of the NIA they were given an arrest memo for Parvez, which was issued on the basis of a First Information Report (FIR) lodged by the NIA on 6 November 2021.

    According to the arrest memo, Khurram Parvez faces charges of “criminal conspiracy”, “waging war against the government of India”, “punishment for conspiracy to wage war against the government of India” (Sections 120B, 121, and 121A of the Indian Penal Code, respectively), and “raising funds for terror activities”, “punishment for conspiracy”, “recruiting any person or persons for commission of a terrorist act”, “offence relating to membership of a terrorist organisation” and “offence of raising funds for terrorist organisations” (Sections 17, 18, 18B, 38, and 40 of the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), respectively).

    24 November 2021: Khurram Parvez was taken to New Delhi where he remained detained under NIA’s custody.

    30 November 2021:Appeared at the NIA court.

    2 December 2021: United Nations human rights experts expressed concern over the arrest of Khurram Parvez under the stringent UAPA anti-terror law and called for his release. They said: “We are concerned that one month after Mr. Parvez’s arrest, he is still deprived of liberty in what appears to be a new incident of retaliation for his legitimate activities as a human rights defender and because he has spoken out about violations.”

    4 December 2021: Khurram Parvez appeared before the National Investigation Agency (NIA) Special Court in New Delhi, after 12 days under NIA’s custody. Judge Parveen Singh extended his detention for another 20 days and ordered that he be transferred to the Tihar maximum security prison, in New Delhi.

    25 December 2021: Judicial custody extended for 30 days until 21 January 2022.

    2022

    24 January 2021:Judicial custody extended for 40 days. His family was barred from meeting him due to COVID-19.

    12 February 2022:The court extended his judicial custody for a further 40 days.

    24 March 2022: An NIA Court extended his judicial custody for 50 days.

    27 March 2022: The NIA carried out another raid of the residence of Khurram in Srinagar.

    13 May 2022: The NIA filed a charge sheet against Khurram Parvez and seven others before the NIA Special Court in New Delhi. He was charged under Sections 120B and 121A of the Indian Penal Code (“criminal conspiracy” and “punishment for conspiracy to wage war against the government of India”, respectively), Section 8 of the Prevention of Corruption Act (“taking gratification, in order, by corrupt or illegal means, to influence public servant”) and Sections 13, 18, 18B, 38 and 39 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) (“unlawful activities”, “conspiracy”, “recruiting any person or persons for commission of a terrorist act”, “offence relating to membership of a terrorist organisation” and “giving support to a terrorist organisation”, respectively). 

    In the chargesheet the authorities accused him and others of supporting a Pakistan based proscribed militant organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) to fund and recruit operatives for providing support in planning and execution of terrorist activities in various parts of India including Jammu & Kashmir.

    21 June 2022: A resolution introduced in the US Congress House of Representatives condemning human rights violations in India highlighted the case of Khurram Parvez

    6 July 2022: Khurram’s first hearing at the NIA Special Court in New Delhi took place. Lawyers were asked if they had received his chargesheet and other documents. The court also set the date for the next hearing


    India is rated 'Repressed' by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • India: Chronology of harassment against human rights defender Sudha Bharadwaj

    SudhaSudha Bharadwaj, aged 60, is a human rights lawyer and activist who has spent her life defending Indigenous people in India and protecting workers’ rights. She was detained in August 2018, arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) on trumped up accusations of having links with Maoist terrorist organisations, based on evidence believed to befabricated. It is alleged that she and 15 other human rights defenders conspired to incite Dalits at a public meeting which led to violence in Bhima Koregaon village in the Pune district of Maharashtra in January 2018. The treatment of Sudha highlights the increasingly repressive measures used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to clamp down on dissent and silence human rights defenders.

     

  • India: Human rights body must raise concerns over crackdown

    To: Hon’ble Justice (Retd.) H.L. Dattu
    Chairperson
    National Human Rights Commission of India
    New Delhi Email:

    Re: Request to raise serious concerns over the ongoing crackdown on human rights defenders in India

    Dear Justice (Retd.) Dattu,

    We, the undersigned international and regional non-governmental organisations, are concerned by the ongoing crackdown by the State agencies on human rights defenders in India. It is in this context that we are writing to request you to raise these concerns and take the necessary measures within your mandate.

    On October 28 and 29, 2020, the houses and offices of several human rights defenders, human rights groups and journalists in Srinagar and Bandipora (Jammu and Kashmir), Bengaluru (Karnataka), and Delhi were raided by National Investigation Agency (NIA) officials. These raids were said to be undertaken to investigate the use of funding for “carrying out secessionist and separatist activities” in Kashmir. The raided premises included the houses and offices of several well-known human rights defenders, including: Ms. Parveena Ahangar, Chairperson of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and 2017 laureate of the Rafto Prize; Mr. Khurram Parvez, Coordinator of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) and Chairperson of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD); other JKCCS members; and the independent daily newspaper Greater Kashmir. The raids were also conducted in Bengaluru at the residence of Ms. Swati Sheshadri, and in Delhi at the residence of Mr. Zafarul Islam Khan, Chairperson of the NGO Charity Alliance and former Chairperson of the Delhi Minorities Commission. Documents and electronic devices, including hard disks containing sensitive information such as victims' personal data and testimonies, were seized during these raids. The individuals and groups affected by these actions have been at the forefront of the human rights movement in the country for decades, and these raids appear to be an attempt to silence them and to hamper their important human rights work. We are extremely concerned regarding the blatant misuse of the counterterrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), against these defenders.

    On October 8, 2020, Mr. Stan Swamy, an 83-year-old Jesuit priest and prominent Adivasi rights activist based in Ranchi (Jharkhand), was arrested without any warrant by NIA officials from his residence. On October 9, 2020, he was transported to Mumbai (Maharashtra), where he was remanded in Taloja jail. His age and the fact that he is suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease is putting him at an increased vulnerability of contracting COVID-19. Mr. Swamy was arrested for his alleged involvement in the “Bhima Koregaon case”, in connection with caste-based violence that broke out during the Elgar Parishad at Bhima Koregaon (Maharashtra), on January 1, 2018.

    As many as 15 other prominent human rights defenders across the country, known for their human rights and civil liberties work on behalf of the most marginalized communities in India, have been detained in the Bhima Koregaon case under the UAPA. Some of them have been detained since June 2018. The 15 are: Mr. Varavara Rao, Ms. Sudha Bharadwaj, Mr. Vernon Gonsalves, Mr. Gautam Navlakha, Mr. Arun Ferreira, Mr. Sudhir Dhawale, Mr. Rona Wilson, Ms. Shoma Sen, Mr. Anand Teltumbde, Mr. Mahesh Raut,

    Mr. Surendra Gadling, Mr. Hany Babu, Mr. Sagar Gorkhe, Mr. Ramesh Gaichor, and Ms. Jyoti Jagtap. Their bail applications have systematically been rejected.

    Since December 2019, the police have also arrested human rights defenders who peacefully protested against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and filed charges of sedition, murder, and terrorism. Those arrested and currently imprisoned include Ms. Devangana Kalita, Ms. Natasha Narwal, Mr. Umar Khalid, Ms. Gulfisha Fatima, Mr. Meeran Haider, Mr. Shifa-ur-Rehman, Mr. Sharjeel Imam, Mr. Asif Iqbal, Ms. Ishrat Jehan, Mr. Khalid Saifi, and Mr. Akhil Gogoi. Charges also remain pending against anti-CAA activists, Ms. Safoora Zargar and Dr. Kafeel Khan, who were granted bail recently. We also remain concerned over pending legal proceedings against anti-CAA activists in Uttar Pradesh and several prominent human rights defenders in Delhi who have been repeatedly questioned.

    As human rights defenders in India are being targeted for their legitimate human rights activities, our organisations urge the National Human Rights Commission of India to intervene immediately.

    We respectfully call upon the National Human Rights Commission of India to carry out independent and impartial investigations into the above-mentioned cases through the provisions of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, in conformity with its mandate to protect human rights, including freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.

    Most of these human rights defenders remain detained, some of them in serious health conditions. We therefore urge the National Human Rights Commission of India to intervene with the concerned courts and the Government of India and demand their immediate release.

    We also call upon the National Human Rights Commission of India to undertake trial observations in the above-mentioned cases.

    We thank you for your attention to this important matter.

    Respectfully,

    Signatories:
    Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    FIDH, in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
    Front Line Defenders
    Human Rights Watch (HRW)
    International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
    International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
    Minority Rights Group (MRG)
    South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR)
    World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

    Cc
    Mr. C. S. Mawri
    Assistant Registrar and Focal Point on Human Rights Defenders
    National Human Rights Commission of India
    New Delhi Email:

    Cc
    Ms. Katharina Rose
    Geneva Representative
    Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) Email:

    Mr. Kieren Fitzpatrick
    Director
    Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions Email:

     

  • India: Report highlights ongoing misuse of restrictive laws during pandemic to keep activists behind bars

    • Report highlights judicial harassment of activists, targeting of journalists and crackdown on protesters 
    • Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of activists and critics during COVID-19 pandemic 
    • CIVICUS calls for the immediate release of arbitrarily detained human rights defenders

    The Indian government is using a variety of restrictive laws - including national security and counter-terrorism legislation - to arrest and imprison human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and critics.

    More than a year into  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term in office, the CIVICUS report, Punished for speaking up: The ongoing use of restrictive laws to silence dissent in India,” shows an increasingly repressive environment for civic freedoms, such as the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.  The report highlights the arrest, detention and prosecution of activists, the targeting of journalists, and the unprecedented and brutal crackdown on protests against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act. CIVICUS is also concerned about increasing violations in Indian-administered Jammu Kashmir.

    Further, India’s slide towards authoritarianism has led to the conflation of dissent with anti-nationalism, often with disastrous results for human rights defenders and activists who have been subjected to damaging smear campaigns.

    The activists profiled in the report represent a small fraction of the arbitrary arrests, prosecutions and imprisonments taking place across India, providing a snapshot of the challenges facing the country’s human rights defenders.

    The report also highlights a series of vaguely worded and overly broad laws being used by the Indian authorities to deprive activists of bail and keep them in ongoing detention. These include the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA), which is India’s primary counter-terrorism law; section 124A on ‘sedition’ of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era relic; and administrative detention laws such as the National Security Act (NSA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA), which applies only in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir

    “The Indian government must stop using restrictive national security and counter-terrorism laws against human rights defenders and critics. The authorities must also drop the baseless and politically-motivated criminal charges against activists and release them immediately and unconditionally,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher.

    “The laws are incompatible with India’s international human rights obligations as well as India’s Constitution. Not only are the laws themselves inherently flawed, but their implementation makes it clear that they have become tools for judicial harassment, rather than for preventing or addressing criminality.”

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of human rights defenders and critics, many of whom have underlying medical conditions or are at risk of contracting COVID-19 in overcrowded and unsanitary prisons. CIVICUS is also concerned about the judicial harassment of individuals and journalists who criticise the authorities’ handling of the pandemic. 

    “It is appalling that human rights defenders are locked up in overcrowded prisons and continuously denied bail despite calls by the UN to decongest prisons and release political prisoners during the pandemic. Holding them at this time puts them at serious risk of contracting COVID-19 and adds another layer of punishment for these activists, who have been detained just for speaking up for human rights,” said Benedict.

    Despite the hostile environment, human rights defenders and civil society organisations in  India are pushing back against oppression. The benefits of a vibrant civil society, and of human rights defenders who are free to do their work, are tangible. This has been evident in civil society’s crucial response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, in providing vital help to communities in need, defending rights, and holding governments accountable.

    “As India’s political and economic influence increases, developments in the country are being closely followed by the global community. India’s quest to play a critical role on the international stage would be better served by committing to upholding democratic values and recognising the validity of people’s struggles,” said Benedict.

    In the report, CIVICUS makes a number of recommendations to the Indian authorities, including:

    • Drop all charges against human rights defenders, activists and protesters, and immediately and unconditionally release all those detained;
    • Review and amend India’s criminal laws to conform to international standards for the protection of fundamental freedoms;
    • Take steps to ensure that all human rights defenders in India are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance or fear of reprisals.

    More information

    The space for civil society in India was downgraded in December 2019 from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic space in every country. A repressed rating for civic space means that democratic freedoms – such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association – are significantly constrained in India.


    Interviews

    To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher  and 

     

  • India: Report highlights ongoing misuse of restrictive laws during pandemic to keep activists behind bars

    • Report highlights judicial harassment of activists, targeting of journalists and crackdown on protesters 
    • Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of activists and critics during COVID-19 pandemic 
    • CIVICUS calls for the immediate release of arbitrarily detained human rights defenders

    The Indian government is using a variety of restrictive laws - including national security and counter-terrorism legislation - to arrest and imprison human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and critics, the global civil society alliance CIVICUS said today in a new report.

    More than a year into  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term in office, the CIVICUS report, Punished for speaking up: The ongoing use of restrictive laws to silence dissent in India,” shows an increasingly repressive environment for civic freedoms, such as the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.  The report highlights the arrest, detention and prosecution of activists, the targeting of journalists, and the unprecedented and brutal crackdown on protests against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act. CIVICUS is also concerned about increasing violations in Indian-administered Jammu Kashmir.

    Further, India’s slide towards authoritarianism has led to the conflation of dissent with anti-nationalism, often with disastrous results for human rights defenders and activists who have been subjected to damaging smear campaigns.

    The activists profiled in the report represent a small fraction of the arbitrary arrests, prosecutions and imprisonments taking place across India, providing a snapshot of the challenges facing the country’s human rights defenders.

    The report also highlights a series of vaguely worded and overly broad laws being used by the Indian authorities to deprive activists of bail and keep them in ongoing detention. These include the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA), which is India’s primary counter-terrorism law; section 124A on ‘sedition’ of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era relic; and administrative detention laws such as the National Security Act (NSA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA), which applies only in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir

    “The Indian government must stop using restrictive national security and counter-terrorism laws against human rights defenders and critics. The authorities must also drop the baseless and politically-motivated criminal charges against activists and release them immediately and unconditionally,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher.

    “The laws are incompatible with India’s international human rights obligations as well as India’s Constitution. Not only are the laws themselves inherently flawed, but their implementation makes it clear that they have become tools for judicial harassment, rather than for preventing or addressing criminality.”

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of human rights defenders and critics, many of whom have underlying medical conditions or are at risk of contracting COVID-19 in overcrowded and unsanitary prisons. CIVICUS is also concerned about the judicial harassment of individuals and journalists who criticise the authorities’ handling of the pandemic. 

    “It is appalling that human rights defenders are locked up in overcrowded prisons and continuously denied bail despite calls by the UN to decongest prisons and release political prisoners during the pandemic. Holding them at this time puts them at serious risk of contracting COVID-19 and adds another layer of punishment for these activists, who have been detained just for speaking up for human rights,” said Benedict.

    Despite the hostile environment, human rights defenders and civil society organisations in  India are pushing back against oppression. The benefits of a vibrant civil society, and of human rights defenders who are free to do their work, are tangible. This has been evident in civil society’s crucial response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, in providing vital help to communities in need, defending rights, and holding governments accountable.

    “As India’s political and economic influence increases, developments in the country are being closely followed by the global community. India’s quest to play a critical role on the international stage would be better served by committing to upholding democratic values and recognising the validity of people’s struggles,” said Benedict.

    In the report, CIVICUS makes a number of recommendations to the Indian authorities, including:

    • Drop all charges against human rights defenders, activists and protesters, and immediately and unconditionally release all those detained;
    • Review and amend India’s criminal laws to conform to international standards for the protection of fundamental freedoms;
    • Take steps to ensure that all human rights defenders in India are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance or fear of reprisals.

    More information

    The space for civil society in India was downgraded in December 2019 from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic space in every country. A repressed rating for civic space means that democratic freedoms – such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association – are significantly constrained in India.


    Interviews

    To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher  and 

     

  • India: Rich Land of Poor People

    On International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (9 August), we commend the work of imprisoned lawyer and activist Sudha Bharadwaj, defender of Indigenous communities in India.

     Sudha Bharadwaj

                                                                                                                  Sudha Bharadwaj

     

    By Alina Tiphagne, Human Rights Defenders Alert (HRDA)

    India’s Adivasi community

    For decades, India’s Adivasis, the collective name for the many Indigenous people in India, have borne the brunt of development-induced displacement. Indigenous communities in India have had their lands taken, livelihoods destroyed, and rights trampled on as a result of business activities and urban expansion. Adivasis make-up about 8% of India’s population and rely on their lands and forests for their livelihood.

    Over the past year, the CIVICUS Monitor has tracked several cases of arrests, intimidation and violence carried out by state authorities on Indigenous people and their allies. Such harassment and brutality are active in the mineral-rich state of Chhattisgarh, central India, which has the highest output of coal in the country and where limestone, dolomite and bauxite are found in abundance.

    In Chhattisgarh, a significant proportion of people are Adivasis from tribal and Dalit communities. Many have been displaced due to businesses seizing land and natural resources, and rampant human rights abuses have been reported in the state. To add to this already complex situation, southern Chhattisgarh is the epicentre of a five decades-long insurgency between the Naxalite Maoist group and the Indian government. The fighting has negatively affected the tribal population, densely forested districts and neighbouring states.

    The work of Sudha Bharadwaj, human rights lawyer and former General Secretary of the Chhattisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties, lies at this fraught intersection. Sudha has lived in the state for 29 years, fighting for the rights of Indigenous and working-class people. However, she has been in pre-trial detention for nearly two years after being charged under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, on suspicion of being involved in Maoist terror activities and conspiring to incite public unrest.

    Political Consciousness

    Born in Massachusetts, US, Sudha moved to New Delhi at the age of 11. Her mother, renowned economist Krishna Bharadwaj, founded Jawaharlal Nehru University’s (JNU) Centre for Economic Studies and planning. Sudha spent her childhood years at JNU, where her early political consciousness was formed:

    “One of my early memories of JNU in my childhood was when Vietnam won the war against the US. I remember a lot of singing and celebration in the first quadrangle. That was the kind of atmosphere in which I grew up,” Sudha said in a recent interview.

    At 18, Sudha moved to Kanpur, central India, to study. At this time, Kanpur was at the peak of its industrial boom, with a string of mega textile mills, attracting migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Through her work in the National Service Scheme (NSS) and its outreach programs, Sudha became exposed - for the first time in her life - to the appalling living conditions of the workers.

    She was also introduced to Shankar Guha Niyogi, a trade unionist, and decided to join his organisation in Chhattisgarh in 1986. After Niyogi was assassinated at the behest of a local industrialist, the organisation splintered, with some choosing militant ways and others moderate. It was Bharadwaj who managed to unite the workers.

    Women & Workers’ Rights

    Sudha began working in the mining trade union of Chhattisgarh and strove to involve women in the fight for workers’ rights. She felt women experienced issues that were not being addressed and made sure the Women’s Committee discussed all topics, even sensitive ones including alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Other issues affecting working class wives were the threat of their huts being demolished, and the daily struggle for water and electricity.

    After being involved in the struggles of the working classes for decades, Sudha decided to study law in the early 2000s. She soon gained a reputation as a formidable lawyer and became iconic in the pro-people struggle after standing up to corporate giants and big business. She is now a visiting professor at the National Law University and Vice President of the Indian Association for People’s Lawyers (IAPL).

    Much of Sudha’s legal work has revolved around the rights of Adivasi people in India. Since 2016 Sudha has been fighting for the rights of villagers in Ghatbarra, Chhattisgarh, after the government cancelled the rights of villagers and Adivasi people to live in the forest and surrounding areas. It is alleged that the authorities want to make way for a coal mining facility, even though the move would damage over 1000 hectares of land and disrupt an elephant corridor.

    Smear Campaign & Imprisonment

    Becoming a well-known lawyer who fights for the rights of Indigenous and marginalised communities has pitted Sudha against a government sensitive to any criticism.

    In September 2018, Republic TV, a channel known as the ‘FOX NEWS of India’, alleged that Sudha had written a letter identifying herself as “Comrade Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj” to a Maoist called “Comrade Prakash,” stating that a “Kashmir like situation” has to be created. The television presenter also accused her of receiving money from Maoists.

    The Indian Supreme Court ordered that Sudha be placed under house arrest for four weeks. Her home was raided at midnight by police who seized her laptop, pen drives, work papers and mobile phone. In October 2018, Sudha’s bail plea was rejected and she is currently being held in pre-trial detention at the Byculla jail in Mumbai. Recently, a special court rejected an interim medical bail plea filed by her lawyers after an inmate tested positive for COVID-19. The National Investigation Agency accused Sudha of using the threat of COVID-19 as an excuse to seek bail.

    As we observe The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples this year, let us not forget the hundreds of Adivasi community workers, social activists, trade unionists, environmental advocates, human rights lawyers, grassroots doctors and nurses who are languishing in prisons - or have lost their lives - fighting for the rights of marginalised people across India. They have shown immense strength and resilience in fighting an increasingly oppressive regime whilst living through a global pandemic.

    #StandAsMyWitness

    As the Narendra-Modi government continues to target grassroots activists, student-leaders, academics and anyone who is critical of the state - let us not forget Sudha’s words:

    “If you try to be safe in the middle, you will never succeed.”

    We urge you not to be safe in the middle. Join our campaign #StandAsMyWitness and demand justice for imprisoned human rights defenders like Sudha. We ask you to stand with them, so they do not stand alone.

    Human Rights Defenders Alert (HRDA) is a national network for the protection and promotion of human rights defenders in the country and a research partner of the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • INDIA: When justice is on your side, you have to keep on fighting

    Flickr: Anand Grover

    After years of civil society campaigning and legal action, gay sex was decriminalised in India in 2018. CIVICUS speaks to Anand Grover, Senior Advocate and Director of Lawyers Collective, a civil society organisation that led the campaign. Lawyers Collective seeks to empower andchange the status of marginalised groups through the effective use of law and engagement in human rights advocacy, legal aid and litigation. Founded in 1981, Lawyers Collective uses the law as a tool to address critical issues such as gender-based violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual and reproductive rights, LGBTI rights and access to medicine and healthcare.Anand is known for his legal activism around homosexuality and HIV/AIDS. From 2008 to 2014 he was the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health and is currently an acting member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

    Homosexuality is still criminalised in about 70 countries around the world, but no longer in India. What is the significance of this change?

    In September 2018, when the Supreme Court decriminalised consensual adult sex in private, it meant a lot to many people in India. Section 377 of the Penal Code criminalised all forms of so-called ‘unnatural sex’, that is, penal non-vaginal sexual acts. Section 377 ostensibly applied to both heterosexuals and homosexuals, and to gay men and lesbian women, but it was mostly used as a tool in the hands of the police to harass, extort and blackmail gay men. It prevented gay men from seeking legal protection from violence, for fear that they would end up being penalised for sodomy. Criminalisation resulted in stigma and prejudice, which in turn perpetuated a culture of silence around homosexuality and resulted in rejection at home and discrimination in the workplace and public spaces.

    Not surprisingly, when we first challenged Section 377 in 2001, nobody wanted to become a petitioner; homosexuality was so stigmatised that nobody wanted to come forward. It was only in 2009, when the High Court of Delhi first decriminalised it, that people started coming out into the open.

    The recent Supreme Court ruling lifted such a heavy burden from many people that we call it the second independence of India – the independence of all these groups that were still criminalised by a British law. Section 337 was imposed in 1861, under colonial rule. Before the British came, sexual practices were not criminalised in India.

    As an immediate result of the legal change, people now can be open about their sexualities. People who got married abroad are now throwing receptions to celebrate their marriages. This was unheard of in India before September 2018. It is quite new for people to declare willingly that they are gay and be seen as a normalised part of society. The other day I interviewed somebody for a job, and she said she was bisexual – and nobody had asked her about it, we asked her about her aspirations, her thoughts about society, and she just said, ‘I’m bisexual and I am happy about all that is happening’, and that was that. We will, hopefully, become a more pluralistic society, at least in terms of sexuality.

     

    Can this change be claimed as a victory for Indian civil society? What role did the Lawyers’ Collective and other civil society organisations (CSOs) play in the process?

    This was indeed a big and hard-won victory for civil society. The process was kicked off by the Lawyers’ Collective in 2001 - or even earlier, because it all started with HIV. We began advocating for the rights of people with HIV in the late 1980s, and lost many times, but got our largest victory in 1997, when the Bombay High Court ruled against discrimination in public sector employment on the basis of HIV status.

    After we won the HIV case, many gay men started coming to our office in Mumbai to seek legal advice. And that’s when I realised that the main issue for them was Section 377. It was the biggest impediment to the full expression of sexuality and personhood of LGBTI people.

    We, in the Lawyers Collective, first decided to challenge Section 377 in 1999 or 2000 but couldn’t file a petition because no gay men were ready to come forward. In the meantime, someone else filed a petition in Delhi and it was dismissed. We then had to challenge the constitutionality of Section 377 in Delhi High Court. The Naz Foundation, a Delhi-based CSO working on HIV prevention amongst homosexuals and other men having sex with men, had also reached the same conclusion: Section 377 was one of the biggest obstacles to access to health services by gay men, who tried to stay under the radar due to fear of prosecution.

    In the Delhi High Court, we argued that Section 377 made it difficult for the Naz Foundation to do their job of providing sexual health advice to gay men. We also challenged Section 377 on the grounds that it violated the rights to equality, non-discrimination and freedom of expression, life and personal liberty, which included the rights to privacy, dignity and health.

    In 2009, the Delhi High Court declared that Section 377 was unconstitutional, and therefore decriminalised adult consensual same-sex relations in private. However, 15 Special Leave Petitions (SLPs) against the Delhi High Court’s decision were filed in the Supreme Court, mostly on behalf of faith-based and religious groups, and the government did not file an appeal. Among other interventions in support of the judgment, the Lawyers Collective filed a comprehensive counter affidavit against the SLPs, on behalf of the Naz Foundation. In 2013 the Supreme Court overturned the judgement of the Delhi High Court on the grounds that amending or repealing Section 377 should be in the hands of parliament rather than the judiciary. The Naz Foundation, through the Lawyers Collective and others, then submitted curative petitions. In the meantime some other petitions were filed and in September 2018 the Supreme Court eventually revised its 2013 judgment and concluded that Section 377 was indeed unconstitutional. They basically said: oh, we made a mistake, sorry.

    What are they key lessons you learned from this experience that could help people in other countries who are fighting similar battles?

    The lesson is quite simple: you need to realise that when justice is on your side, you have to keep on fighting and you will eventually win. That is what happened here: we knew that this law, that was arbitrarily imposed by the British, was unjust. We encountered lots of challenges, the fight was a long one, but we were ultimately victorious.

    Are you experiencing backlash? Do you expect anti-rights groups to challenge these gains?

    Not really, not this time. In fact, from 2001 to 2018 we developed a lot of advocacy through the media, and over time the public started understanding the issues, so there’s hardly any backlash now. The process took a long time, so it also gave us time for changes to catch within the mindset of the people.

    I think anti-rights groups are weak on this particular issue, because all major religious groups eventually took sides against criminalisation. We will eventually see backlash when the issue of marriage equality is raised, but not around the decriminalisation of gay sex. And even gay marriage will eventually happen, because it is the logical next step.

    What should be the next agenda item to work on?

    Now we need to move to the next stage in terms of equality between LGBTI people and the rest of the population, including equality and non-discrimination in the private sector, regarding employment, education, health services and so on. Also, laws about sexual assault and rape need to be gender-neutral. This also applies to marriage – it should be defined as a relationship between two people, and so the definition should be gender-neutral. The same goes for inheritance and other things.

    We approach change from two sides: public opinion and the courts. The reason why we choose to work through the courts rather than parliament is that the judiciary is more empathetic to these causes, whereas the parliament is packed with right-wing politicians, so these reforms wouldn’t pass.

    Civic space in India is rated as ‘obstructed’ in theCIVICUS Monitor

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