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13 August 2019

India must ensure the safety of human rights defenders in Jammu and Kashmir

Front Line Defenders expresses grave concern for the safety and well-being of human rights defenders in Jammu and Kashmir in light of the communications blackout and curfew-like conditions that have been imposed in the region. The restrictions follow the Indian government’s unilateral decision to revoke Article 370 of the Constitution. Article 370 of the Indian Constitution guaranteed Kashmir a significant degree of autonomy from the central government by allowing it to have its own constitution, flag, and independence in all matters except those relating to foreign affairs, defence, and communications. The repeal of Article 370 drastically changes the autonomy and status of the region. Restrictions imposed since 5 August aimed at preventing a widespread public backlash against the decision have seriously undermined the safety of human rights defenders living in the region and their ability to carry out their peaceful and legitimate activities.

On 5 August, the Indian government announced its decision to repeal Article 370, and split the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, administered by the Federal Government. For over a week since the decision, there have been severe restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir, with a blockade on communication and information flow. With phone lines, including landlines, mobile networks and internet communication blocked, people living in Jammu and Kashmir are compelled to rely on limited government-operated phones to communicate with those outside the region. While there is no official curfew, movement is restricted and there are reports of razor wire and a heavy military presence on the streets. In the days leading up to the announcement, there was heavy deployment of troops to the state, which was already one of the most militarised regions in the world.

Human rights defenders in Jammu and Kashmir have always worked under extremely vulnerable and hostile conditions. Defenders documenting human rights violations by the Indian government, especially the military, have faced reprisals including threats and legal persecution. The current restrictions and ongoing curtailment of rights, including the right to free speech and expression and the right to peaceful assembly and association have a direct bearing on the safety of human rights defenders, and their ability to carry out their work effectively. Front Line Defenders is especially concerned by unconfirmed reports of mass arrests and detention, including of human rights activists, academics, and lawyers. It has been impossible to verify these reports due to the communication blackout. The inability to access defenders in the region, ensure their well being and monitor due process rights in detention heightens concern for their security.

Parallel to the repealing of Article 370, the Indian government also introduced amendments to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the National Investigative Agencies Act (NIA). The UAPA, which is a regressive piece of anti-terror legislation, has already been used to target and incarcerate human rights defenders across India. The recent amendments allow for individuals (as opposed to only organisations) to be proscribed without a clear and transparent process. In light of past incidents targetting human rights defenders in Kashmir on baseless charges, there is concern that the fresh amendments, coupled with an effective information embargo and lack of access, could further compromise the safety and security of human rights defenders.

Front Line Defenders condemns any measures that restrict or undermine the work of human rights defenders in Jammu and Kashmir. It urges the government of India to fulfil its state responsibility in ensuring that they are permitted to carry out their lawful and legitimate work in defence of the rights of others.