New Delhi, India – A United Nations expert has joined global human rights groups in expressing concern over the arrest of Indian rights defender Teesta Setalvad a day after the country’s Supreme Court upheld the findings of a special investigation team (SIT) that cleared Prime Minister Narendra Modi of complicity in 2002 anti-Muslim riots.
Setalvad was picked by the anti-terrorism wing of the Gujarat police on Saturday afternoon from her home in Mumbai hours after India’s interior minister, Amit Shah, a close aide of Modi, accused her of giving baseless information to the police about the deadly anti-Muslim violence during Modi’s chief ministership of the state.
“Deeply concerned by reports of #WHRD [Human Rights Defender] Teesta Setalvad being detained by Anti Terrorism Sqaud [sic] of Gujarat police,” said Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, in a tweet describing Setalvad as “a strong voice against hatred and discrimination”.
Lawlor reiterated that defending human rights was not a crime as she urged the Indian authorities to release Setalvad and put “an end to [her] persecution by Indian state”.
Detention of prominent human rights activist @TeestaSetalvad by the Indian authorities is a direct reprisal against those who dare to question their human rights record. It sends a chilling message to the civil society & further shrinks the space for dissent in the country
— Amnesty India (@AIIndia) June 25, 2022
On Sunday, Setalvad, who long campaigned to get justice for victims of the 2002 religious violence, was produced before a local court in Ahmedabad, the largest city of Gujarat. The police have accused her of “committing forgery and fabricating evidence”, among other charges.
Setalvad said, according to a complaint shared by her aide with Al Jazeera, that her detention was illegal and that the police assaulted her during the raid.
Deadly riots under Modi
The riots triggered by a train burning incident killed, according to some estimates, 2,000 people, a majority of them 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 – and burned and hacked to death 69 people hiding there, including a former member of parliament, Ehsan Jafri. He had allegedly made calls to the then Chief Minister Modi for help but was rebuked, according to media reports.
#Bangalore: Protest was held by Progressives against the arrest of #TeestaSetalvad and Former DGP RG Sreekumar today. Prominent activist from Karnataka were present during the protest. pic.twitter.com/P209qhrXu6
— Mohammed Irshad (@Shaad_Bajpe) June 26, 2022
After local courts in Gujarat exonerated Modi of all wrongdoings, Jafri’s wife Zakia Jafri, 82, with assistance from Setalvad, moved the Supreme Court in 2013. On Friday, the court rejected the petition.
Jafri’s son, Tanvir Jafri, who is in Saudi Arabia on the Hajj pilgrimage, told Al Jazeera that the family is “extremely disappointed” by the judgement.
On Saturday, the Gujarat police opened investigations against Setalvad and two former top police officers – former Director General of Police RB Sreekumar and another former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Sanjiv Bhatt – alleging that they resorted to conspiracy and forgery to implicate innocent people.
Sreekumar was picked up from his home in the state capital, Gandhinagar, while Bhatt is already in jail undergoing life imprisonment in a separate case.
The police have cited observations from the judgement to justify the new case against the trio as the court said “all those involved in such abuse of process, need to be in the dock and proceeded with in accordance with the law”.
However, Prashant Bhushan, a senior lawyer based in New Delhi, criticised the top court’s remarks as “totally unwarranted and arbitrary”.
“These people [Jafri and Setalvad] had gone to the court on the basis of voluminous evidence of different kinds on the basis of reports by 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 pursue the petition and Setalvad to have helped her in the petition through the courts,” Bhushan told Al Jazeera.
He said the judgement could prove a deterrent for people to file petitions for victims of violence.
“It is important for people to call out the Supreme Court on this,” Bhushan said.
Kavita Krishnan, a prominent civil liberties activist, termed these arrests a “revenge action” by the Modi government, accusing the court of paving the way for the case against Setalvad and two other officers.
She said the action will have a “chilling effect” on the civil society in the country already facing pressure.
“This regime is suppressing civil society that acts as a watchdog on the state.”
These arrests have evoked condemnation within the country and abroad as some groups have given a joint call for countrywide protests on Monday.
“Detention of prominent human rights activist Teesta Setalvad by the Indian authorities is a direct reprisal against those who dare to question their human rights record,” Amnesty India tweeted.
“Targeting human rights activists for their legitimate human rights work is unacceptable. 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 organisation in Dublin, issued an alert on Twitter, saying they were “alarmed” by the action against Setalvad.
“Gujarat Anti-Terror police, forcibly entered her home and detained her without basis. We call for her immediate release and an end to her legal persecution as punishment for her peaceful human rights work,” the group said.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders also expressed concern, calling for Setalvad’s “immediate release”.