United Nations experts on Friday urged India to immediately release human rights defenders who have been arrested for protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act, and who are being held in pre-trial detention without sufficient evidence. Many of them are facing charges simply on the basis of speeches they made criticising the discriminatory nature of the new citizenship law, the experts said.

In a statement published by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, they said that these defenders, many of them students, appear to have been arrested “simply because they exercised their right to denounce and protest against the CAA”. “Their arrest seems clearly designed to send a chilling message to India’s vibrant civil society that criticism of government policies will not be tolerated.”

Cases against as many as 11 individuals such as Safoora Zargar, Sharjeel Imam, Akhil Gogoi and Natasha Narwal, among others, include serious allegations of human rights violations, the experts said. Several of these relate to due process failings during arrest and detention, as well as allegations of torture and ill-treatment, they added.

“One of the most alarming cases concerns pregnant Delhi student Zargar, who was detained for over two months having allegedly been kept in conditions equating to solitary confinement, denied regular contact with her family and legal representative, and having not been provided adequate medical care or diet,” the statement added. “She was finally granted bail on 23 June, in her sixth month of pregnancy, on humanitarian grounds.”

The United Nations’ experts also highlighted that Indian authorities’ response to the protests seemed discriminatory. In a reference to Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kapil Mishra, they said that it “appears they [the authorities] have not similarly investigated allegations of incitement to hatred and violence made by CAA supporters, some of whom are reported to have chanted ‘shoot the traitors’ at counter-rallies.”

On February 23, Mishra held a rally in support of the Citizenship Amendment Act about 2 km from Jafrabad area. He had also given the Delhi Police a three-day ultimatum to clear the protests. A day later, communal violence erupted in parts of North East Delhi, continuing for days and leaving at least 53 people dead and hundreds injured.

The experts further flagged concerns about the government invoking counter-terrorism or national security legislation, and using procedural police powers, to deny bail to protesters and issue charges carrying heavy sentences.

“Although demonstrations ended in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and India’s Supreme Court issued a recent order to decongest jails because of health concerns related to the pandemic, protest leaders continue to be detained,” it added. “The reported spread of the virus in Indian prisons makes their immediate release all the more urgent.”

Observing that India’s new citizenship law provides expedited and simplified access to citizenship for people from specific religious minorities from several neighbouring countries but excludes Muslims, the statement said its adoption in December 2019 provoked nationwide protests by Indians from diverse faiths – including Hindus – who believe it violates the secular foundations of India’s constitution.

The signatories included special rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders, the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, on the rights to peaceful assembly and of association, on minority issues, on contemporary forms of racism, on freedom of religion or belief, on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism and on torture.