INDIA: Release Human Rights Defenders Thushar and Jaison

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) strongly condemns the arrest of reputed human rights defenders and advocates Thushar Nirmal Sarathy and Jaison C. Cooper under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in Kerala. They, like many others in the state, have been labeled “Maoist sympathizer” and are in jail since 30 January 2015.

Jaison, a well-known blogger has lent his voice to a variety of grassroots struggles of the marginalized and dispossessed sections of society in India and abroad. He was taken into custody on 29 January 2015 from Cochin, while Thushar was arrested after he addressed a press conference in Kozhikode the same day in Nalanda hotel. The police approached him after Thushar finished his conference and asked him to come to the Chemmangad Police Station for some ‘inquiry’ which Thushar complied with. At the station his arrest was recorded and was later transferred to Kochi and is currently in judicial remand.

Their arrests follow a pattern; the government has been targeting human rights defenders and rights activists by labeling them as “Maoist” sympathizers and thereby criminalizing them.

This is despite the Supreme Court order in the Binayak Sen case, which held that mere membership of a banned organization does not make a person criminal. The Bench, comprising Justices Markandeya Markandeya Katju and Gyan Sudha Mishra, stated that:

“In our opinion, Section 3(5) cannot be read literally as otherwise it will violate Articles 19 9(free speech) and 21 (liberty) of the Constitution. It has to be read in the light of our observations made above. Hence, mere membership of a banned organisation will not make a person a criminal unless he resorts to violence or incites people to violence or creates public disorder by violence or incitement to violence.”

The arrests have also followed a series of raids on the residential premises of persons engaged in human rights activities in Kerala. Advocate Thushar is the Secretary of Janakeeya Manushayvakasa Prasthanam (People’s Human Rights Forum), which has fought against human rights violations by the state authorities in Kerala for almost a decade. He has, ironically, also written a book on the draconian UAPA and also produced a short documentary film on the same subject titled U R under Arrest.

He, along with Jaison, had also played a major role in mounting a campaign in Kerala for the release Dr. Binayak Sen, when police, in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, under the same draconian UAPA, arrested the doctor.

Both Thushar and Jaison are actively engaged with peasants’ struggles against land acquisition, illegal rock quarrying, forcible evictions, and the violation of labour rights of migrant workers in Kerala, as well as in struggles against various polluting industries. Thushar, as an advocate, has also offered legal help and counsel to activists targeted by the state machinery. For instance, he stood for Sreekanth and Arun Balan who had been arrested by the police for allegedly carrying out attacks, and had no legal counsel.

Keeping both Thushar and Jaison in captivity, despite raids on their houses not having garnered any incriminating evidence against them makes a mockery of a justice system that is supposed to hold bail and not jail as the norm. Even the initial charge sheet filed by the police seeking their remand carried no evidence other than their possessing pamphlets and Maoist literature of the kind freely available in the public domain.

The right to read and possess literature is a freedom of expression guaranteed under the Constitution of India. To face punishment and jail term for possessing pamphlets and literary material of a political character that is freely available in the public domain shows the extent to which the Kerala police are willing to go on their human rights activist witch-hunt.

The AHRC wishes to emphasize that the UAPA is a travesty of both justice and democracy and has been used mostly for criminalising the Muslim minority and strident human rights activists. As leading Kerala activist B.R.P. Bhaskar noted in 2013, of the 100 people detained under the UAPA, 92 are Muslims and 8 are those accused of being Naxalites or Maoists.

Such a witch-hunt of human rights advocates and activists, under the guise of battling extremism, is unacceptable in a functioning democracy. The AHRC calls upon the government of Kerala to intervene in this case, release Thushar Sarathy and Jaison Cooper unconditionally, and stop the police vendetta against the human rights defenders.