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20 April 2023

Immediately release human rights defender G.N. Saibaba and end unjust criminal proceedings against him

On 19 April 2023, the Supreme Court of India set aside the order of the Bombay High Court to discharge human rights defender and Delhi University professor Gokarakonda Naga Saibaba of all offences and ordered the constitution of a new bench in the High Court for fresh consideration of the case. Front Line Defenders is deeply disturbed about this development and views it as an attempt to prolong G.N. Saibaba’s incarceration. It is also concerned about the human rights defender’s deteriorating health in Nagpur Central Jail and calls for his immediate release.

G.N. Saibaba is a human rights defender, activist, scholar and professor in the University of Delhi. He is a well-known campaigner for the rights of traditionally oppressed communities, especially Dalit and indigenous communities in India. He has spoken out against the violence and discrimination faced by these communities, especially in mineral-rich central India. He campaigned extensively against serious human rights abuses by state-backed Salwa Judum vigilantes and the government security forces, including killings, torture, and, forced displacement, in Chhattisgarh state since mid-2005. He was initially arrested in 2014 and accused of links to banned Maoist organisations. In March 2017, he was convicted under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and sentenced to life in prison.

On 19 April 2023, the Supreme Court order for the constitution of a new bench of the Bombay High Court to consider the case based on merits is a clear indication of its willingness to overlook due process even if it impinges on an individual’s fundamental rights of personal liberty and dignity. Since valid sanctions have not been provided for the prosecution of G.N. Saibaba as required under section 45 of the UAPA, the basis of the trial against him is deeply flawed. Given the draconian nature of UAPA as a counter-terrorism legislation, it must be exercised with caution, especially considering the enormous contribution of G.N. Saibaba towards human rights and justice.

On 14 October 2022, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court discharged human rights defender G.N. Saibaba on the grounds that valid sanction to prosecute the human rights defender had not been obtained as required under Section 45 of the UAPA. Hours later, the Maharashtra government moved the Supreme Court of India asking for a stay on his release. On 15 October 2022, in an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court convened a hearing on a Saturday to hear the government’s petition and put a stay on the order of the Bombay High Court deeming the charges against him to be “very serious” and could not be dismissed based on “mere technicalities”. It is deeply concerning that the court overlooked the procedural safeguards listed in the UAPA and allowed further incarceration of G.N. Saibaba when the trial proceedings against him are null and void as per India’s domestic legislation. The Supreme Court also rejected the appeal to allow G.N. Saibaba to go on house arrest on medical grounds despite his disability due to polio and other severe health issues including a heart condition, brain cyst, hypertension and breathing difficulties.

Front Line Defenders, along with six other human rights organisations has previously raised concerns about G.N. Saibaba’s health conditions in prison. The human rights defender is kept under constant CCTV monitoring in his cell, violating his right to privacy. He contracted COVID-19 twice in jail, in January 2021 and in February 2022, leading to a further deterioration of his health. Two weeks after the Supreme Court stayed his discharge, the human rigths defender wrote to his wife saying that he could no longer bear the pain as his muscles are in constant spasms and his body has become much weaker due to contracting COVID-19 and swine flu in prison. He also stated that he has received no treatment for his ailments even though the doctors at the Government Medical College Hospital had recommended immediate medical attention for his case. It must also be noted that another person accused along with G.N. Saibaba in the same case, Pandu Narote, died after contracting swine flu in prison in August 2022, revealing the inhumane conditions of incarceration in Nagpur Central Jail.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders has previously called for his release on medical grounds, calling on the “Indian authorities to immediately ensure that G.N. Saibaba has continuous and unrestricted access to health care, including adequate treatment and rehabilitation.”

Front Line Defenders strongly condemns the violation of G.N. Saibaba’s rights to life, liberty, dignity, health and privacy as a result of his prolonged and unjust incarceration on the basis of an unfair and prejudiced trial. It calls for the human rights defender’s immediate release and restoration of his fundamental freedoms along with immediate attention to his health.