Guria Swayam Sevi Sansthan (Guria), an organization based in Varanasi, has been working against human trafficking and forced prostitution for more than two decades. Guria is AHRC’s partner organisation and in 2016, Guria filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) before the High Court at Allahabad, seeking guidelines to be issued to the police for the immediate rescue and rehabilitation of trafficked minor girls, who were forced into prostitution in the red- light area of Meerganj in Allahabad district. Subsequently, a rescue operation was undertaken by police officials along with the team from Guria and a number of minor and adult victims were rescued from brothels in the area. Several traffickers and brothel owners were arrested as a result, and the concerned trial has been expedited, along with rejection of bails of traffickers and custody of victims, by the Supreme Court. Upon intimation from the District Magistrate of Allahabad, Guria was authorized to assist in the counselling, rehabilitation and other supportive activities for the rescued victims. Upon completing counselling in May 2016, reports were submitted to the Sub District Magistrate (Sadar) Allahabad, who then passed orders for the detention of 67 victims and 37 children for one year at the Government Protection Home (Women) in Agra, in order to complete the rehabilitation and vocational training process.
The victims were then remanded to the Government Protection Home in Agra. In April 2017, Guria received information that the Warden of the Home has illegally released 6 victims to the custody of the traffickers and brothel keepers from whom they had been rescued, without any authorization or legal order from the competent authority. This information was reported by Guria to the SDM Sadar Allahabad on 13th April 2017. One again, in May 2017, warden of the home illegally released 43 more rescued victims along with 8 other children to the custody of traffickers and brothel keepers. This information was also given by Guria to the Principal Secretary, Department of Women and Child Development, UP, Home Secretary, Chief Secretary, Hon’ble Chief Minister, DM Allahabad, DM Agra and the Sub-Divisional Magistrate(SDM) Sadar Allahabad on 29th May 2017. An investigation was conducted into the matter on orders from the Department of Women and Child Development, UP. On the basis of the information uncovered by the investigation, Geeta Rakesh, Superintendent of the Rajkiya Sanrakshan Griha (Mahila) Agra, was arrested on 1st June 2017 for illegally releasing victims into the custody of traffickers. Criminal case number 455/2017 was registered against her at Etmadaula police station of district Agra. Her bail applications were vehemently opposed by Guria at the Sessions Court Agra and even at the High Court and as a result of this, they were rejected by both the courts.
Sunil Kumar is an activist with Guria and Sunil is currently appearing as a witness in this case, as well as in the case against other traffickers and brothel owners, and has recorded his statement before the Special Judge, Agra court, established under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012. The case is currently suffering from several infirmities, as no efforts have been made to recover and locate the victims who were re-trafficked as well as to trace the location of the traffickers who took the custody of these rescued victims. Unveiling all the above facts, Guria has approached the Supreme Court of India to issue directions for the formation of a Special Investigation Team(SIT) to re-investigate into the whole matter which has also issued notice to all the respondents.
At present, Sunil and other activists involved in the case have faced many threats to their lives. On 19th January 2018 at around 4 p.m., while standing outside the court, Sunil was accosted by three supporters of Geeta Rakesh, allegedly at her behest. The supporters verbally abused Sunil, threatening to kill him if he gave statements against Geeta Rakesh in court again. Sunil then approached the New Agra police station to file a complaint on the basis of the threats and was directed to the Diwani Kachahari police chauki (out post). Despite providing the police with information about the threats, including the description of his harassers, no complaint has been filed yet. The details of the incident were also sent to the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh(UP), Home Secretary, Principal Secretary, Department of Women and Child Development, UP and also to the District Magistrate & SSP(Senior Superintendent of Police) of Agra but no action has been taken till date.
Sunil has also filed an application in the Sessions Court of Allahabad, requesting protection from harassment by the traffickers and their associates on 11th & 19th February 2018 in the related case where the victims were rescued from the Allahabad red light area so that he can safely continue to appear as a witness in the case.
The Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, 1956 (ITPA) criminalizes trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation, while the selling of minors into prostitution also is criminalized under S. 372 of the Indian Penal Code. Significantly, there is also a prohibition on forced labour under Article 23 of the Indian Constitution, making human trafficking – particularly of minors – a violation of fundamental rights, as well as a criminal offence. This makes the issue all the more pressing, and it is essential that police personnel and other law enforcement authorities ensure that measures are taken for the expedient and impartial trial of all involved parties. The harassment and verbal abuse faced by Sunil amounts to criminal intimidation, an offence under S.503 of the Indian Penal Code. Moreover, tampering and intimidation of witnesses impairs the right of the involved parties to have a fair trial, which additionally violates their right to due process under Art.21. Re-trafficking of rescued victims through the alleged concerted efforts of a functionary who is supposed to protect the victims and help in their rehabilitation is a heinous crime, one that requires the prompt and urgent action of the authorities.
In this case, which revolves around human trafficking of vulnerable people, it is all the more essential that the case proceed fairly and without impairment from external forces. The police have also derogated from their duty to safeguard members of the public by refusing to register an FIR, despite being made aware of the harassment. The Supreme Court in Lalita Kumari v. Govt. of UP [(2014) 2 SCC 1] had ordered that FIRs must mandatorily be registered by the police upon receiving information about the commission of a cognizable offence.
As an activist, Sunil is entitled to special protections under international law. The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted in 1998 by the UN General Assembly, stated that governments have the duty to “take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of [human rights defenders] against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary actions” as a consequence of their efforts to promote human rights. Therefore, the Indian government is bound by its international legal obligations to ensure that all activists and human rights defenders are provided with protection against arbitrary arrests under false charges, security against violence from law enforcement, so that they may enjoy their constitutional right to due process, life and liberty under Article 21, and the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a).
It is clear that Sunil Kumar has been subjected to criminal intimidation and harassment, and that police personnel have failed to investigate the matter. The Asian Human Rights Commission stands with Sunil Kumar and Guria and urges the international community to take note of this gross violation of human rights taking place blatantly under the aegis of law enforcement officials. The relevant authorities must be instructed to ensure that the investigation into this act of criminal intimidation is conducted quickly and efficiently and the re-trafficked victims are located, rescued and rehabilitated.