India should stop arresting Dalit rights activists, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said in a joint statement on Monday. The rights organisations called the recent arrests of five activists by the Pune Police “politically motivated”, and said the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act should be repealed.

Five activists – Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen and Surendra Gadling – were arrested on June 6 for alleged links to the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

The police arrested them after raids at their homes and offices while investigating an event held on December 31 to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. The police claimed that speeches the accused made at the event led to violent clashes between Dalits and Marathas a day later, and that the programme was funded by Maoists.

“This is not the first time that activists working on Dalit and Adivasi rights have been arrested with little evidence,” Amnesty International India chief Aakar Patel said. “The government should protect people’s rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly instead of creating an atmosphere of fear.”

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, alleged that Indian police often use counter-terrorism laws to target “critics of the government and social activists, particularly those acting on behalf of marginalised communities”. “The authorities should follow Supreme Court directives not to punish ideological support for a movement and to protect freedom of expression,” she said.

The two organisations urged the repeal of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, whose provisions, they said, use “vague and overbroad definitions of terrorism, authorise pre-charge detention for up to 180 days including 30 days in police custody, place limitations on bail, and presume guilt in certain circumstances”.

“Instead of targeting those who speak out for the rights of the marginalised and against state abuses, the government should address the grievances of the affected communities,” Ganguly said.