India: government raids targeting critics

(New York) – Indian authorities are using allegations of politically motivated tax evasion and financial irregularities to silence human rights activists, journalists and other government critics, Human Rights Watch said today hui. In September 2021, government finance officials raided Srinagar, Delhi and Mumbai against journalists’ homes, press offices, an actor’s premises, and the home and office of a rights activist. humans.

The raids are part of the growing crackdown by the national government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly since coming to power in 2014, and sedition laws, against activists, journalists, academics, students and others. They have also used foreign funding regulations and allegations of financial misconduct to target outspoken groups.

“The Indian government raids appear to be intended to harass and intimidate critics, and reflect a wider tendency to try to silence all criticism,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These abuses weaken fundamental democratic institutions in India and shatter fundamental freedoms.

Journalism organizations, such as the Editors Guild and the Press Club of India, have repeatedly called for an end to the harassment of independent media, saying it was a blatant attack on press freedom.

In the most recent incident, on September 16, officials from the Enforcement Directorate, which investigates financial crimes, raided the home and office of Harsh Mander, an activist, in Delhi, alleging financial and administrative irregularities. Mander was in Germany for a scholarship at the time of the raid. A joint statement by activists, academics and former officials condemned the raid as part of “an ongoing chain of abuses of state institutions” to restrict rights.

Authorities have repeatedly targeted Mander, who has strongly criticized the BJP government’s discriminatory policies against religious minorities and works with victims of community violence. Delhi Police, instead of taking action against BJP leaders who instigated community violence in Delhi in February 2020, filed a fabricated case of hate speech and incitement to community violence against Mander.

On September 8, Jammu and Kashmir police raided the homes of four Kashmiri journalists – Hilal Mir, Shah Abbas, Showkat Motta and Azhar Qadri – and confiscated their phones and laptops. Mir reported that they also took his and his wife’s passports. Authorities summoned all four to Srinagar Police Station for questioning and told them to come back the next day. Journalists in Kashmir have faced increased harassment from authorities, including arrests for terrorism, since the BJP government revoked the state’s autonomous constitutional status in August 2019.

In June, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention wrote to the Indian government expressing concerns about “allegations of arbitrary detention and intimidation of journalists covering the situation in India. Jammu and Kashmir ”. The letter cited the cases of Fahad Shah, Auqib Javeed, Sajar Gul and Qazi Shibli, and also raised concerns about the outspoken newspaper shutting down. Cashmere times in October 2020. He noted that these violations “may be part of a larger scheme of silencing independent reporting in Jammu and Kashmir, which in turn may deter other journalists and civil society from further broadly to cover public interest and human rights issues. In the region.”

On September 10, authorities from the Income Tax Department raided the offices of news sites. Laundry and Newsclick, in Delhi, as part of an investigation into suspected tax evasion. Both are known to criticize the government. During the raids, officials downloaded data from desktops and the personal cell phone and laptop of the Laundry editor, Abhinandan Sekhri, and took various financial documents as well as email archives from the Newsclick editor, Prabir Purkayastha, and another editor. Financial authorities previously targeted both media outlets in June. In February, officials from the Directorate of Execution raided Purkayastha’s office and home.

In July, tax authorities raided around 30 offices of one of India’s most widely read newspapers, Dainik Bhaskar, in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra, after months of critical coverage of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2017, authorities raided the NDTV television news channel, which is also critical of government policy, following allegations of financial irregularities.

On September 7, the Uttar Pradesh state police filed a criminal complaint against journalist Rana Ayyub, a vocal critic of the BJP government, for money laundering, cheating, dishonest embezzlement and breach of trust. The complaint, brought by a group called the “Hindu IT Cell”, accused him of committing these crimes during fundraising campaigns for flood victims and those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Uttar Pradesh police accused Ayyub of encouraging hostility between religious groups and of insulting religious beliefs in another criminal case in June, for sharing a video on social media. In the video, a Muslim man accuses Hindu men of beating him and forcing him to chant Jai Shri Ram, a phrase used by Hindus to pray or as a greeting, but which has also become a cry of rallying used by Hindu nationalists. Government supporters and Hindu nationalist social media trolls repeatedly abused and threatened Ayyub. In 2018, after receiving death threats, UN human rights experts called on Indian authorities to protect her.

On September 15, tax authorities raided the premises of Sonu Sood, an actor, in Mumbai, alleging tax evasion in connection with a real estate transaction. The raids appeared to be politically motivated because the actor had received high praise from the general public, media and opposition politicians across the country for his philanthropic work during the pandemic, particularly in filling in the gaps. created due to government foreclosure policies and health care shortages.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and various United Nations human rights experts have repeatedly expressed concerns over the past few years about the shrinking space for groups in the United Nations. civil society and increasing harassment and prosecution of human rights defenders and other critics. They called on the government to ensure that no one is detained for exercising their basic human rights and to protect civil society groups in the country.

“By stifling fundamental freedoms in her country, India is undermining its influence as a world leader in the promotion of human rights,” Ganguly said. “The government must change course and defend the fundamental rights of its people. “

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