Eight of the 10 accused in the Bhima Koregaon case on Tuesday wrote to the Maharashtra Human Rights Commission, alleging that the state government had imprisoned them due to their dissenting views as defenders of human rights.

“This letter reaches you on the occasion of International Human Rights Day [December 10],” the accused said. “As accused in the Bhima Koregaon [Elgar Parishad] case, it is our strong contention that the state has arrested and continues to imprison us due to our longstanding dissenting views as human rights defenders. By this incarceration of over 18 months, the Indian state seeks to create an environment of fear where all such voices critical of the government are warned that their human rights, especially those dealing with freedom of expression, ideology and association can be easily crushed under the garb of national security.”

The signatories to the letter said that their bail applications were rejected in spite of the reputations they had. They said the stringent provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act had made it easier for the prosecution to ignore important questions about the authenticity, credibility and admissibility of the digital evidence. They added that the recent developments in digital technology have made it easier for authorities to provide fake incriminating data.

The signatories alleged that while the Union government and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad are keen to curb the menace of fake news, it has become a regular propaganda tool in elections since 2014, the year the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre. The accused said that the use of fake news becomes more dangerous and sinister as a tool when it is used by the state against citizens.

As an example, they cited the Pegasus software, which was allegedly used by the government to spy on certain personalities. “Even IT major Google has revealed that there have been government-backed phishing emails on nearly 500 users in India,” the signatories said. “These examples and modes of surveillance and attacks are nothing short of a sort of ‘state-sponsored cyber terrorism’.”

The accused said the Bhima Koregaon violence case falls within this realm of the use of fake news and government surveillance. “The Pune Police claim that certain files were found on the computers of two of us accused,” the signatories said. “Since they deliberately chose to ignore proper procedures to digitally secure the electronic storage devices seized from our residences, they could easily plant such fake and fabricated letters in the hard disks.” The signatories alleged that on the basis of these fake letters, the Pune Police are attributing criminal intent to “perfectly lawful” acts performed by them.

The accused said that on the occasion of International Human Rights Day, they condemn the “environment of fear and criminalisation” promoted by the state.

The case so far

According to the police, the violence in Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2018 was triggered by a meeting called the Elgar Parishad, which was organised the day before in Pune to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. The battle was fought in 1818 between the East India Company and the Peshwa faction of the Maratha Confederacy.

Ten activists – Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson and Sudhir Dhawale – were arrested in June and August 2018 as part of the investigation, and were accused of having links with Maoists.

In November, a Pune sessions court rejected the anticipatory bail plea of Navlakha. The court also denied three-day interim protection to Navlakha, paving the way for his arrest in the case. The activist had moved the sessions court with an anticipatory bail plea after the Bombay High Court asked him to approach the lower court. Earlier in November, the protection from arrest provided to Navlakha by the Supreme Court had ended.

The High Court in September had refused to quash a police case filed against Navlakha in January, following which he moved the Supreme Court. On October 15, the Supreme Court extended by four weeks the interim protection from arrest granted to the activist. It also granted Navlakha permission to approach an appropriate court seeking pre-arrest bail.

Tuesday’s letter was signed by all the accused except Varavara Rao and Gautam Navlakha.