Human rights watchdog Amnesty International India on Thursday said that denying bail to activist Umar Khalid was a “big blow” to the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

“Umar’s continued detention for over 18 months comes against the backdrop of a rapidly shrinking space for critical voices and sets a chilling precedent for anyone whose views the authorities disagree with,” Aakar Patel, the chairperson of the organisation’s board, said in a statement.

Khalid is an accused person in a case alleging larger conspiracy into the Delhi riots. The activist, who has been under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, was denied bail by a Delhi court earlier on Thursday.

This is also Amnesty International India’s first statement since its offices in the country were closed down in September 2020. The organisation had alleged that it was being forced to shut its operations as the Indian government had frozen its bank accounts.

The group had said its “lawful fundraising model” was being portrayed as money laundering because Amnesty India had challenged the “government’s grave inactions and excesses”.

In its statement, Amnesty International India said that the Khalid’s detention was against international human rights laws. It said that the Indian government uses UAPA to intimidate those who are critical of the authorities.

“UAPA is India’s draconian anti-terror law which is characterised by slow investigative processes and stringent bail provisions,” the organisation said.

It added: “It is a tool that effectively criminalises peaceful dissent by ensuring human rights defenders and other critical voices face many years behind bars.”

The statement also called for Khalid’s release as well as others who have been detained for protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Khalid was arrested, along with other activists, on September 14, 2020, after riots broke out between the supporters of the Citizenship Amendment Act and those opposing the law in North East Delhi between February 23 and February 26 of that year.

The clashes claimed 53 lives and left hundreds injured.

In their first information report, the police had alleged that Khalid made provocative speeches at two protest sites and had appealed to the people of Delhi to hold demonstrations in the streets during former United States President Donald Trump’s visit to India, which had coincided with the violence in the national Capital.

Special Public Prosecutor Amit Prasad, while opposing the bail plea of Khalid, had argued that the riots in the national Capital were “clearly a criminal conspiracy” aimed at bringing the government “to its knees”. He had claimed that the riots were planned secretly, and were not just a “spontaneous burst of violence”.

However, Khalid’s counsel had told the court that the prosecution lacked evidence to prove its case and said it was based on video clips run by television channels. The counsel had said that allegations against Khalid were the product of the “fertile imagination” of the investigation officer in the case.

Denying Khalid bail, Additional Sessions Judge Amitabh Rawat had said that allegations him in the chargesheet appeared to be prima facie true.