Human rights organisation Amnesty International India on Wednesday condemned the Delhi Police’s decision to charge two Jamia Millia Islamia University students under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, or UAPA, in a case related to communal violence in North East Delhi in February.

The organisation’s Executive Director Avinash Kumar said the use of UAPA against Jamia students Meeran Haider and Safoora Zargar was an extension of the Indian government’s “crackdown” on dissenting voices. He claimed a pattern was emerging of the government using the law as a tool to repress dissent.

Kumar cited the examples of the case against Kashmiri photojournalist Masrat Zehra, who was charged under the UAPA last week, and the arrests of human rights activists Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, who were accused in the Elgar Parishad case along with several other activists and lawyers.

Kumar said the Jamia students’ case, along with the arrests in the Elgar Parishad case, are “politically motivated actions that are aimed at silencing those seeking state accountability”. “The Indian government seems to have failed in its obligation to protect human rights defenders, and the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” he said, adding that the UAPA had been condemned by various human rights groups as “being repressive and against the international human rights norms”.

“The authorities must stop criminalising protest,” Kumar said. “When hard-won rights and freedoms are weakened, everyone stands to lose.”

The amended UAPA allows the government to proscribe individuals as terrorists and empowers more officers of the National Investigation Agency to probe cases. A person charged under the act can be jailed for up to seven years.

Jamia students’ arrests

On April 2, the Delhi Police had arrested Meeran Haider, a PhD student of the Jamia Millia Islamia University, for allegedly conspiring to incite violence in Delhi. Days later, Safoora Zargar, an MPhil student at the university, was arrested for allegedly obstructing the road near the Jaffrabad metro station during the anti-Citizenship Act protests in February. On Tuesday, police booked Haider and Zargar under the UAPA. They are both in judicial custody.

Zargar is the media coordinator of the Jamia Coordination Committee, while Haider is a member of the panel. Haider, a PhD, is also the president of the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s youth wing in Delhi.

After facing backlash from some in the civil society and film personalities, the Delhi Police had said on Monday that they had done their job impartially while investigating the North East Delhi violence. “All the arrests made have been based on analysis of scientific and forensic evidence, including video footage, technical and other footprints,” the police said.

The clashes in North East Delhi in February had broken out between the supporters of the Citizenship Amendment Act and those opposing it, leading to the deaths of 53 people and injuring hundreds. The violence was the worst Delhi saw since the anti-Sikh violence of 1984. Critics have accused the Delhi Police of either inaction or complicity as violence tore through neighbourhoods in North East Delhi. In video evidence released by BBC, members of the Hindu mob even admitted to the Delhi Police helping them pick stones and throw them towards Muslims.