The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has termed the arrest and custody of Jamia Millia Islamia student Safoora Zargar, held for her alleged role in the Delhi violence last year, a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. India is party to the multilateral treaty.

The panel, which comes under the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, said that Zargar was arbitrarily detained, and that she should be provided compensation and other reparations by the Narendra Modi government in accordance with the international law.

It said that Zargar’s political views and beliefs regarding the government’s policies and actions “are at the heart” of her arrest. It also called on the Indian government to ensure a “a full and independent investigation” of the case and to take action against those responsible for the “violation of her rights”.

The observations were made in an opinion adopted at its 89th session in November, which were publicly released on March 11.

Zargar was arrested in April in connection with the communal violence that killed 53 people in North East Delhi in February last year. The Delhi Police have alleged that the clashes were a conspiracy by the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protestors to defame the Narendra Modi government.

Invoking the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, India’s draconian anti-terror law, it arrested 21 people, many of whom were students. Zargar was one of them. But unlike the others who remain in jail, Zargar was granted bail in June on humanitarian grounds because she was pregnant.

UN panel’s observations

The working group said there was no legal basis for Zargar’s detention, as the police arrested her in an “irregular manner”, making her sign blank sheets of paper while she was in the Special Cell Police Station.

She was detained for an alleged offence for which she is not named, and the complainant in that case is the police, the UN panel said. Moreover, given her medical condition – that she was pregnant – the panel said there “was no necessity for an urgent arrest of the student activist, however serious the charges”.

Also, “as soon as she was granted bail under First Investigation Report No. 48/2020, she was re-arrested under First Investigation Report No. 59/2020” the Working Group pointed out. “This clearly shows the mala fide intentions of the authorities and Delhi Police to keep her in custody for longer.”

Furthermore, the UN panel said that the offences pertaining to the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, the Arms Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act were only added after her arrest. It also noted that there has been “a general pattern” of charging activists under the provisions of the UAPA in India.

The working group’s report said that Zargar had suffered a “deprivation of liberty” contravening “universally recognized human rights, in particular the right to freedoms of opinion, expression and peaceful assembly” and several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Also read:

‘I kept feeling it was a nightmare’: Safoora Zargar on surviving 38 days in solitary confinement

Targeted for her views on CAA

The Working Group said that Zargar was discriminated on the basis of her status as a human rights defender and in violation of her right to equality before the law and equal protection of the law under article 26 of the Covenant.

“The Working Group finds that Ms. Zargar was deprived of her liberty on discriminatory grounds, owing to her status as a human rights defender, and on the basis of her political or other opinion regarding the Citizenship (Amendment) Act,” it added. “Her deprivation of liberty violated articles 2 and 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 2 (1) and 26 of the Covenant, and was arbitrary under category.”

In these circumstances, the Working Group concluded that Zargar’s detention resulted from her “peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as of the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs”, and was contrary to Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 26 of the Covenant.

Follow-up procedure

Accordingly, the Working Group said it was referring Zargar’s case to the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders for appropriate action.

The Working Group also asked for follow-up information from the two stakeholders – the Indian government and the unidentified “source” that submitted Zargar’s case – to inform them whether the research scholar had been unconditionally released and compensated, and whether the government ordered a full investigation, and made any legislative amendments “to harmonize the laws and practices with international obligations”.

The UN panel gave six months for submitting this information.

However, the Working Group said it reserved the right to take its own action in follow-up to the opinion if new concerns in relation to the case are brought to its attention.