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UN rights panel slams detention of Safoora Zargar

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Taking note of the detention of Jamia Millia Islamia University student Safoora Zargar, who was pregnant when Delhi police arrested her in April 2020 over the Citizenship law protests and the Delhi riots, the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council’s (HRC’s) Working Group against Arbitrary Detentions (WGAD) has adopted an opinion critical of the government’s workings, and referred the case to three Special Rapporteurs for action.

In the opinion, based on a complaint from a “source” who was not identified by the human rights body, Ms. Zargar had suffered a “deprivation of liberty” contravening “universally recognized human rights, in particular the right to freedoms of opinion, expression and peaceful assembly” and several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It also called the government to ensure a “a full and independent investigation” of the case and measures against those responsible for the “violation of her rights” including Ms. Zargar’s allegedly irregular detention despite her pregnancy, where she said she was made to sign blank sheets of paper, the conditions of her incarceration, alleged discrimination, and curbing her right to protest.

“Given the fact that Ms. Zargar was critical of the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, as a woman human rights defender engaged in public protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and a media liaison officer for the Jamia Coordination Committee, her current detention can clearly be interpreted as another move to curb her dissent by intimidating her and others associated with the Jamia Coordination Committee,” the WGAD’s 11-page opinion, adopted on November 27, 2020, that was released on Thursday, said in its analysis of Ms. Zargar’s case (A/HRC/WGAD/2020/91).

In the disposition, the WGAD also said it was referring the case to Special Rapporteurs on “the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the situation of human rights defenders; and on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism,” for appropriate action.

In a statement, Ms. Zargar thanked the UN body for “taking cognizance” of the case, and called her case part of an “unfortunate trend”.

“I am lucky and thankful and at the same time hope that the situation for all human rights defenders will improve in future and that all political prisoners be immediately released, unconditionally,” Ms. Zargar’s statement added.

The Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to the HRC body’s decision. The WGAD report said it had written to the Indian government on July 22, 2020, with a request for a reply for information in the Zargar case within three months, but the government had not responded nor requested an extension of time. Last month, the MEA had reacted sharply to another WGAD indictment of the government in the detention of British businessman Christian Michel, as well as to comments by the Human Rights Council Chief Michelle Bachelet who has criticised the government over the farmers’ protests, actions against NGOs like Amnesty International, and has sought to intervene in a case against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

“The Working Group should be aware that India has robust grievance and redressal mechanisms against allegations of violations of human rights, a vibrant and independent judiciary and a ‘category A’ National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) compliant with the Paris Principles,” the MEA had said in its response on the Michel case.

International law experts say that the WGAD’s opinion is not at present actionable by the Human Rights Council, which is currently in session, but could set India and the HRC on a further collision course.

“I am sure India will defend itself, particularly since there is an internal legal process already at work, and all domestic options like the NHRC have not been exhausted yet. Therefore, more than actual international ramifications, the worry would be about reputational damage for India,” Avi Singh, a lawyer with experience in international courts, told The Hindu, adding that the case is likely to be taken up during India’s Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council, next due in 2022.

In its case against Ms. Zargar, the Delhi Police had argued against bail claiming they believed she was one of the “main conspirators and instigators” of the Delhi Riots in February 2020, with the aim of “uprooting the government of India through violent means”. However the High Court released her on humanitarian grounds in June 2020.

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