New Delhi, India – A United Nations expert has joined global human rights groups to express concern over the arrest of Indian rights defender Teesta Setalvad, a day after the country’s Supreme Court overturned the findings of a special investigative team (SIT) that Prime Minister Narendra had acquitted Modi of complicity in anti-Muslim riots in 2002.
Setalvad was detained by the counter-terrorism branch of the Gujarat Police Department from her home in Mumbai on Saturday afternoon, hours after Indian Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah, a close associate of Modi, accused her of giving unfounded information to police about the deadly anti-Muslim violence during Modi’s chief minister of state.
“Very concerned about reports of #WHRD [Human Rights Defender] Teesta Setalvad is detained by Anti Terrorism Squad [sic] of the Gujarat Police Department,” Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, said in a tweet describing Setalvad as “a strong voice against hatred and discrimination.”
Lawlor reiterated that defending human rights was not a crime, urging the Indian authorities to release Setalvad and “end [her] persecution by the Indian state”.
The arrest of prominent human rights activist @TeestaSetalvad by Indian authorities is in direct retaliation for those who dare to question their human rights record. It sends a chilling message to civil society and further narrows the space for dissent in the country
— Amnesty India (@AIIndia) June 25, 2022
On Sunday, Setalvad, who has campaigned for justice for the victims of the 2002 religious violence, was brought before a local court in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city. The police accuse her of, among other things, “forgery and fabrication of evidence”.
Setalvad said, according to a complaint her assistant shared with Al Jazeera, that her detention was illegal and that police assaulted her during the raid.
Deadly riots under Modi
The riots caused by a train fire incident have claimed the lives of 2,000 people, most Muslim. Official figures stand at about 1,000.
In one episode, a Hindu mob stormed the Gulbarg Society complex — a cluster of buildings housing Muslim families — burning and killing 69 people hiding there, including a former MP, Ehsan Jafri. According to media reports, he reportedly asked the then Chief Minister Modi for help but was reprimanded.
After the local courts in Gujarat acquitted Modi of all wrongdoing, Jafri’s wife, Zakia Jafri, 82, went to the Supreme Court with help from Setalvad in 2013. On Friday, the court dismissed the petition.
Jafri’s son, Tanvir Jafri, who is in Saudi Arabia on the Hajj pilgrimage, told A Jazeera that the family is “extremely disappointed” by the verdict.
On Saturday, Gujarat police opened an investigation against Stalvad and two top former police officers – former Director-General of Police RB Sreekumar and another former Indian Police Service (IPS) police officer, Sanjiv Bhatt – alleging that they had resorted to conspiracy and forgery. To involve innocent people.
Sreekumar was picked up from his home in the state’s capital, Gandhinagar, while Bhatt is already in prison, facing life imprisonment in a separate case.
Police cited comments from the verdict to justify the new case against the trio, as the court said that “all those involved in such abuse of process should sit in the dock and act by the law”.
However, Prashant Bhushan, a senior lawyer based in New Delhi, criticized the supreme court’s comments as “totally unwarranted and arbitrary”.
“These people [Jafri and Setalvad] had gone to court based on voluminous evidence of various kinds based on reports from independent commissions, court orders, testimonies of the accused in the violence, works of journalists.
“All these things were more than enough for Zakia Jafri to continue the petition and Setalvad to help her petition through the courts,” Bhushan told Al Jazeera.
He said the verdict could act as a deterrent for people to file petitions for victims of violence.
“It’s important that people call the Supreme Court about this,” Bhushan said.
Kavita Krishnan, a prominent civil liberties activist, called these arrests an “act of revenge” by the Modi government and accused the court of paving the way for the case against Setalvad and two other officers.
She said the move would have a “horrifying effect” on civil society in the country already under pressure.
“This regime suppresses civil society and acts as a watchdog of the state.”
These arrests have led to condemnation in the country and abroad as some groups launched a concerted call for nationwide protests on Monday.
“The arrest of prominent human rights activist Teesta Setalvad by the Indian authorities is direct retaliation for those who dare to question their human rights record,” Amnesty India tweeted.
“It is unacceptable to target human rights activists for their legitimate human rights work. The Indian authorities must immediately release Teesta Setalvad and end the persecution of Indian civil society and human rights defenders.”
Front Line Defenders, an international human rights organization based in Dublin, has warned Twitter, saying it is “alarmed” by the action against Setalvad.
“Gujarat anti-terror police broke into her home and detained her for no reason. We call for her immediate release and an end to her legal charges as punishment for her peaceful human rights work,” the group said.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders also expressed concern and called for Setalvad’s “immediate release”.