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Gautam Navlakha At Risk of Arrest

Status: 
Detained
About the Situation

On 25 May 2020, Gautam Navlakha was transferred from Tihar prison in Delhi to Mumbai's Taloja prison, without informing the human rights defender's family or lawyers.

Gautam Navlakha had surrendered at the NIA in Delhi on 14 April 2020, following the Supreme Court's order on 8 April that he surrender in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case within a week.

On 8 April 2020, the Supreme Court of India granted a period of one week for human rights defenders Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha to surrender in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case.

On 24 January 2020, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led central government abruptly transferred the inquiry into the Bhima Koregaon case from the Pune Police, in the state of Maharashtra to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), a central agency. The move has been criticised by human rights defenders and has raised serious concern regarding the course of the investigation.

On 28 August 2018, five human rights defenders were arrested and several others’ residences, including Father Stan Swamy’s, were raided in a coordinated crackdown by Pune police in different parts of India. Sudha Bhardwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha and Arun Ferreira were all arrested in different cities under a host of charges, including terrorism-related charges.

About Gautam Navlakha

Gautam Navlakha Gautam Navlakha is a human rights defender and journalist. He was the Secretary of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, a non-governmental organisation committed to legally defending civil liberties and democratic rights by protecting, extending and helping implement fundamental rights as guaranteed in the Indian constitution. He has also served as the convener of the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir.

27 May 2020
Gautam Navlakha transferred to Taloja prison in Mumbai while awaiting interim bail from the Delhi High Court

On 25 May 2020, Gautam Navlakha was transferred from Tihar prison in Delhi to Mumbai's Taloja prison, without informing the human rights defender's family or lawyers. He was given only a few minutes to pack his belongings before being swiftly taken to the train station. Prior to being transferred, Gautam Navlakha was due to appear before the Delhi High Court on 27 May 2020 for a bail application. Neither the defender nor his lawyers were informed of the transfer during a video conference with the Additional Sessions Judge in Delhi on 23 May 2020. In the meantime, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) had sought for an extension of Gautam Navlakha's judicial custody until 22 June 2020.

Gautam Navlakha had surrendered at the NIA in Delhi on 14 April 2020, following the Supreme Court's order on 8 April that he surrender in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case within a week. The 68 year-old defender suffers colonic polyposis, chronic gastritis and high blood pressure and is therefore particularly vulnerable during COVID-19. Taloja prison, where Gautam Navlakha is currently being held, has confirmed cases of COVID-19 and has also reported one death from the virus. Information about his transfer and whereabouts was relayed to his family only after the defender was given permission by the Mumbai High Court to contact his partner in Delhi. The hasty transfer can be seen as an effort by the NIA to ensure that the human rights defender remains in custody by preventing him from being released on interim bail.

11 April 2020
Human rights defenders Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde facing imminent arrest

On 8 April 2020, the Supreme Court of India granted a period of one week for human rights defenders Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha to surrender in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case. The human rights defenders and nine other human rights defenders currently in jail stand falsely accused of being responsible for violence that broke out in Bhima Koregaon on 1 January 2018. The Supreme Court has previously rejected the anticipatory bail applications filed by Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha. The latest order to surrender comes despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which carries specific risks to prison inmates, and especially for the two human rights defenders given their age and serious medical conditions.

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Anand Teltumbde is an internationally renowned scholar and a leading public intellectual in India. He has written extensively on Dalit rights and the anti-caste movement in India. He is currently a Senior Professor and Chair of Big Data Analytics at the Goa Institute of Management (GIM), as well as a former columnist at the prominent social science journal The Economic and Political Weekly. He is actively involved in several organisations, including the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights and the All India Forum for Right to Education.

Gautam Navlakha is a human rights defender and journalist. He was the Secretary of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, a non-governmental organisation committed to legally defending civil liberties and democratic rights by promoting and protecting fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India. He has also served as the convener of the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir.

On 17 March 2020, the Supreme Court of India rejected the anticipatory bail applications of Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha. Anticipatory bail is commonly used as a safeguard for individuals accused of, or anticipating arrest for, non-bailable offences. The decision is a major setback in a lengthy struggle for protection from arrest on fabricated charges. Nine other prominent human rights defenders Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, and Rona Wilson have been in jail for over a year under the regressive Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), linked to the same case. Their bail applications have been routinely delayed and denied.

Following the Supreme Court order on 17 March, Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha were given three weeks to surrender. On 8 April, the court further extended this period by a week. In extending the period, the Court recognized that the defenders had been granted protection from arrest for a lengthy period. The decision however failed to consider the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the imminent risk to the two human rights defenders’ health and safety. Both human rights defenders are over 65, a high risk age group for COVID-19, and have serious medical conditions including chronic asthma and spondylitis in Anand Teltumbde’s case. The Supreme Court decision is alarming, in a context of global and national moves to reduce congestion in prisons, and the Supreme Court of India’s own directives in this regard. The order to surrender does not, however, compel an arrest. The police, in the current context and taking into account the health considerations of the defenders, can refrain from making the arrest.

Front Line Defenders published an appeal condemning the arrest of the ten human rights defenders linked to the Bhima Koregan case in August 2018 and a further appeal on the threat of arrest facing Anand Teltumbde in April 2019. It also raised concerns against the transfer of the investigation to the National Investigation Agency in January 2020. The organisation saw this as a deliberate effort to undermine attempts by the newly elected State Government in Maharashtra to launch a fresh investigation, including into the targetting of human rights defenders linked to the case.

Front Line Defenders believes that the charges against Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha are a direct reprisal for their peaceful human rights work on behalf of the most marginalized communities. Criminalizing the defenders is aimed at punishing and deterring their work and that of other human rights defenders in the country. Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned about the two defenders and about those currently in jail in connection with the Bhima Koregan case. It strongly condemns the ongoing judicial harassment of Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha especially in a climate of serious threats to their health and safety in prison.

29 January 2020
Attempt to compromise independent probe into Bhima Koregaon case

On 24 January 2020, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led central government abruptly transferred the inquiry into the Bhima Koregaon case from the Pune Police, in the state of Maharashtra to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), a central agency. The move has been criticised by human rights defenders and has raised serious concern regarding the course of the investigation. The case involves nine human rights defenders – Sudha Bhardwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut and Surendra Gadling – who have been in detention since 2018.

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The decision to transfer the case to the NIA is seen by human rights defenders as an attempt to maintain control over the political narrative on this case, in which nine defenders are incarcerated and several more are falsely implicated. In June 2018 five human rights defenders, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut and Surendra Gadling, were arrested followed by the August arrest of Sudha Bhardwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira and Gautam Navlakha. All those arrested with the exception of Gautam Navlakha remain in jail, with their bail applications postponed or denied. Several other human rights defenders had their homes and offices raided, were labelled as urban Naxals and were the subject of false propaganda and a misinformation campaign by Indian authorities. The detained defenders are accused, without any clear basis, of inciting the violence that took place at Bhima Koregaon on 1 January 2018. They are also accused of sedition, criminal activity and conspiracy against the state. Front Line Defenders has previously raised concerns over the safety of the human rights defenders falsely implicated and has called on the Indian state to cease reprisals against human rights defenders based on their peaceful human rights work.

Following the State elections in Maharashtra the new government set up a Special Investigating Team (SIT) to inquire into the case. Given the hostile conditions for human rights defenders under the previous BJP led state government, there was hope among defenders of a positive resolution and greater protection for those involved under the new government and the SIT. The decision to transfer the case to the NIA and remove it from the State police comes in the wake of this development and may be interpreted as an attempt to prevent the new government in Maharashtra from carrying out a review of the controversial inquiry into the case. Effectively the case is back under the control of the BJP led central government. This has raised fears of the prolonged detention of those already in jail and further targeting of local defenders on account of their work.

Human rights defenders have consistently sought an independent probe in this case. In September 2018 the Supreme Court of India rejected a petition seeking an independent court-monitored probe. The then BJP led state government vigorously opposed the petition for independent monitoring. Prior to 24 January 2020, there had been no attempt by the central government or the previous state government to direct the case to the NIA.

Front Line Defenders believes that the nine human rights defenders currently in jail and others implicated in this case are being targeted due to their work in the defence of human rights. It believes that the timing of the transfer is a matter of serious concern as the investigation is over and pending adjudication in the court. It is an attempt to undermine an independent inquiry through a Special Investigation Unit and further compromise the safety of the human rights defenders involved.

31 August 2018
Five human rights defenders arrested and charged in coordinated raids across India

On 28 August 2018, five human rights defenders were arrested and several others’ residences, including Father Stan Swamy’s, were raided in a coordinated crackdown by Pune police in different parts of India. Sudha Bhardwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha and Arun Ferreira were all arrested in different cities under a host of charges, including terrorism-related charges.

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Sudha Bhardwaj is a human rights lawyer, with a focus on protecting the rights of adivasi (indigenous) people in the state of Chattisgarh. She has acted as legal representation in several cases of extrajudicial executions of adivasis and has represented adivasis and activists before the National Human Rights Commission of India. She also serves as the General Secretary of the Chattisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties.

Vernon Gonsalves is an academic and writer, who writes extensively on Dalit and adivasi rights, the conditions of prisons in India and the rights of prisoners. He has also advocated for scrapping the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, a draconian piece of anti-terror legislation with a wide ambit and vague concepts, which allows its misuse against academics, lawyers and human rights defenders. In recent times, it has been used repeatedly to target people expressing dissent.

Varavara Rao is an acclaimed academic, well known for his progressive writings. He regularly takes part in various social activism activities and often speaks publicly on human rights issues.

Gautam Navlakha is a human rights defender and journalist. He was the Secretary of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, a non-governmental organisation committed to legally defending civil liberties and democratic rights by protecting, extending and helping implement fundamental rights as guaranteed in the Indian constitution. He has also served as the convener of the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir.

Arun Ferreira is a human rights lawyer who has been a member of the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights and the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers. He is a defendant lawyer for five human rights defenders who were arrested on 6 June 2018, in a separate case related to the Bhima-Koregaon violence which occurred on 1 January 2018.

Father Stan Swamy is an indigenous people’s rights defender. He is the founder of Vistapan Virodhi Janvikash Andolan (VVJA), an all India platform for different movements that are resisting displacement of adivasi people, Dalits, and farmers from their lands. The organisation has supported these vulnerable communities in securing their land rights and proposing sustainable development models instead.

On 28 August 2018, Indian police simultaneously arrested five human rights defenders and raided the properties of several others in a nationwide operation. Sudha Bhardwaj was arrested at her residence in the state of Haryana, when it was raided by the police. During the raid, her laptop, mobile phone, pen drives and a blank diary were seized. Sudha Bhardwaj has expressed concern that her diary might be tampered with. The arrest documents presented to her were in Marathi language, which she does not understand, failing to comply with Section 165 and 166 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. The human rights defender has been charged under several sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, along with Sections 153 A, 505, 117 and 120 of the Indian Penal Code. Sudha Bhardwaj was recently the target of a defamatory media campaign, which branded her as a “Maoist”.

Gautam Navlakha was arrested at his residence in New Delhi in the afternoon during a raid. He faces charges under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, along with Sections 153A, 505, 117 and 120 of the Indian Penal Code. Arun Ferreira was arrested from his home in Mumbai during a raid in the morning during which his wife’s laptop and pen drives were seized. Vernon Gonsalves and Varavara Rao were arrested at their homes in Mumbai and Hyderabad, respectively, in the afternoon. Vernon Gonsalves’ wife is also one of the lawyers handling the case of the five human rights defenders who were arrested on 6 June.

On the same day, Father Stan Swamy’s residence was raided in Ranchi city, Chattisgarh state. Laptops, mobile phones, cameras, memory cards and music tapes were all seized from his house. The search notice presented to him by the police was written in Marathi language, which he does not understand. This is the second time Father Stan Swamy has been targeted in the past two months. A false sedition case was lodged against him on 29 July 2018 in Jharkhand state for his work with the adivasi people in Jharkhand.

The five defenders were arrested based on evidence of their “involvement in inciting violence” on 31 December 2017. The violence in question occurred during Elgar Parishad, a Dalit commemoration of the anniversary of a battle the Dalits had won 200 years previously against the Peshwas (upper caste rulers). The commemoration had turned violent at Bhima Koregaon (near Pune) on 1 January 2018. The human rights defenders believe that the case has been brought against them to muzzle the voice of dissent, as all five are currently active in protesting against the arrests of other human rights defenders in India.

The defenders will be kept under house arrest in their own homes under police watch until 6 September 2018, as directed by the Supreme Court of India. The Court questioned the police’s decision to arrest the human rights defenders nine months after the incident, pointing out that they are all reputable citizens, and that “stifling the dissent” was harmful for a democratic society.

Front Line Defenders condemns the arrests of Sudha Bhardwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira and Varavan Rao, as it strongly believes that they are directly linked to their peaceful and legitimate work in defence of human rights. Front Line Defenders also condemns the raid at Father Stan Swamy’s home and the seizure of his property.

Front Line Defenders urges the authorities in India to:

1. Immediately and unconditionally lift the house arrest orders on Sudha Bhardwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira and Varavan Rao and return any property seized, as Front Line Defenders believes that the human rights defenders are being held solely as a result of their legitimate and peaceful work in the defence of human rights;

2. Immediately and unconditionally drop the charges against the five human rights defenders;

3. Conduct an independent, thorough and impartial investigation into the widespread violence organised against Dalits, including human rights defenders, in the aftermath of the Bhima Koregaon commemoration;

4. Immediately cease all further harassment of Fr. Stan Swamy and his family, and return the property seized from his house, as Front Line Defenders believes that the raid carried out was solely a result of his legitimate work in defence of human rights;

5. Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in India are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free from all restrictions.