The arrest in India of a prominent human rights activist accused of criminal conspiracy and fabrication of evidence against Prime Minister Narendra Modi has triggered outrage across the global human rights community.
On Saturday, Gujarat police arrested activist Teesta Setalvad and former senior police officer and whistleblower RB Sreekumar. The two and another former police officer, Sanjiv Bhatt — who has already been jailed for life in a case of custodial killing — were named in a First Information Report (FIR) related to the Gujarat riots.
Setalvad is known for her fight in support of the victims of the 2002 riots in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in communal riots when Modi was the chief minister of the western state.
During the riots, Gujarat state police were accused of sitting idle while Hindu mobs hacked and burned Muslims to death. India’s National Human Rights Commission then blamed Modi’s Gujarat government for not taking basic steps to prevent violence and failing to respond to specific pleas for protection during the riots.
In 2012, a court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) filed a report noting that there was “no prosecutable evidence” against Modi and his officials and exonerated all of them from complicity in the riots.
On Friday, India’s Supreme Court dismissed a petition that Setalvad and Zakia Jafri — whose husband and former member of Indian parliament, Ehsan Jafri, was burned to death during the riots — had filed challenging Modi’s exoneration by the SIT.
The next day, India’s home minister Amit Shah accused Setalvad of giving false information about the Gujarat riots to the police with an intention to defame Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.
“The court has, in fact, established that the allegation that the riots were organized as part of a criminal conspiracy was a lie that was spread by a troika of NGOs, the opposition and ideologically driven journalists,” Shah said. “If those who leveled allegations have a conscience, they should apologize.”
Setalvad was picked up by the Gujarat police hours after Shah’s accusation against Setalvad was broadcast on national TV.
In dismissing the petition challenging Modi’s exoneration, the Supreme Court on Friday observed, “At the end of the day, it appears to us that a coalesced effort of the disgruntled officials of the State of Gujarat along with others was to create sensation by making revelations which were false to their own knowledge. ... All those involved in such abuse of process need to be in the dock and proceeded with in accordance with law,” the court said.
Citing observations by the Supreme Court, the police have justified the filing of the FIR and launched investigations against Setalvad and the two former police officers.
Journalist-turned-activist Setalvad founded the rights group Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) to advocate for the victims of the Gujarat riots. In their petition, Setalvad, Zakia Jafri and CJP demanded a criminal trial of Modi and dozens of state officials, alleging criminal conspiracy to spread riots.
Arrest reflects 'shrinking space for dissent, says supporter
Standing in support of Setalvad, rights activists and groups have condemned her arrest and demanded she be released immediately.
Calling her arrest “outrageous,” Govind Acharya, an India specialist at Amnesty International USA, said targeting human rights activists for their legitimate human rights work is “unacceptable.”
“The detention of Teesta Setalvad is a way to punish those who are brave enough to question India's human rights record. Her arrest is part and parcel of the shrinking space for civil society and dissent in India,” Acharya told VOA.
Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said Setalvad has long been recognized for her work supporting Muslim victims of the Gujarat riots and her pursuit for justice.
“It is her work, and those of other brave activists like her, that led to the Supreme Court monitoring the investigation and prosecution of scores of people that raped and murdered their neighbors during the riots,” Pearson told VOA.
“It is unfortunate that India’s Supreme Court chose to ignore the work that Teesta has done, despite repeated raids and cases filed against her by Gujarat authorities, perhaps in retaliation or to cover up the failures of the state to protect minority rights.”
Setalvad’s arrest shows how religious minorities and those standing for justice for Muslims are being targeted in India now, New Delhi-based civil rights activist Kavita Krishnan said.
“It’s also a shame that the Supreme Court of India for the very first time has not only failed to deliver justice to the Gujarat riots victims, but has encouraged the state to put the petitioners ‘in the dock,’” Krishnan told VOA.
“The Supreme Court judgment instigating criminalization of the petitioners for justice, followed by the vindictive prosecution by the Gujarat police in collusion with the Modi-Shah regime, is an attempt to chill civil liberties and human rights activism in India,” she said.
Delhi University teacher and social activist Apoorvanand said the arrest of Setalvad based on the direction of the Supreme Court to proceed against her and others is a dangerous signal to all human rights workers fighting to secure justice for the marginalized sections of society.
“It subverts the basic principle of justice that you don’t punish those who are fighting against the all-powerful state seeking justice. To criminalize the act of justice-seeking is a new low for the Supreme Court of India,” Apoorvanand told VOA.
Mary Lawlor, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights defenders, said in a tweet she was “concerned” by the news of Setalvad’s arrest.
“Teesta is a strong voice against hatred and discrimination. Defending human rights is not a crime. I call for her release and an end to persecution by #Indian state,” Lawlor said.