India: Amnesty calls denial of bail to Muslim activist ‘big blow’

Rights group slams India’s repeated denial of bail to Umar Khalid, who is accused of ‘conspiracy’ behind Delhi riots and charged under UAPA.

JNU former student and social activist Umar Khalid speaks at Shaheen Bagh during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act and NRC in New Delhi, India on 26 January 2020 (Photo by Nasir Kachroo/
Umar Khalid speaking at Shaheen Bagh, the epicentre of anti-citizenship law protests, in New Delhi [File: Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

New Delhi, India – Rights group Amnesty International has described India’s repeated denial of bail to jailed Muslim activist Umar Khalid as a “big blow” to those exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the Hindu-majority country.

Khalid, 34, along with more than a dozen other Muslims, is accused by the Indian authorities of being part of a “larger conspiracy” that led to religious riots in New Delhi in February 2020 which left 53 people dead, most of them Muslims, and dozens of houses and mosques torched.

The riots – the worst the Indian capital had seen in decades – followed peaceful sit-ins across the country, mainly organised by Muslim women, against the passage of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government in late 2019.

Critics said the CAA, which fast-tracked Indian citizenship for non-Muslim refugees from India’s neighbouring nations, violated India’s secular constitution.

The Muslim resistance to the law triggered hate speeches against the community by ministers and politicians belonging to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other Hindu groups, which led to attacks on Muslims living in the eastern parts of New Delhi.

The Delhi police, who are controlled by the federal government, accused Khalid of being a “key conspirator” and one of the “masterminds” of the riots. He was arrested on September 13, 2020 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, a draconian anti-terror law characterised by stringent bail provisions, among other charges.

The activist, who was also jailed briefly for “sedition” in 2016 when he was a student at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, has denied any involvement in the Delhi violence.

However, the Delhi court on Thursday said there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that the allegations against him are “prima facie true” and “hence, the present application for bail of accused Umar Khalid stands dismissed”.

In a statement shortly after the bail was denied, Amnesty India’s chief Aakar Patel said: “Umar’s continued detention for over 18 months comes against the backdrop of a rapidly shrinking space for critical voices and sets a chilling precedent for anyone whose views the authorities disagree with.”

According to news website, Khalid’s lawyer Trideep Pais told the court the police charge sheet against his client was a “fabrication” and based on video clips run by two news channels that aired a “truncated version of (a) speech” Khalid made during the anti-CAA protests.

Khalid’s father, Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas, said he was disappointed with yet another denial of bail to his son and that the order will be challenged in a higher court.

“I am disappointed with the denial of bail to Umar Khalid after three postponements,” Ilyas told Al Jazeera, adding that his son was not even present in New Delhi when the riots took place – a contention also raised by Khalid’s lawyer in court.

In reply, the court said a “conspiracy” does not require the accused to be present at the spot.

“The witnesses produced by the court, whose identity was not revealed, contradicted their own statements. The entire charge sheet against Umar is fabricated, false and concocted by the Delhi Police,” Ilyas said.

“Our lawyer very well said in court that it almost seems like a script of a TV show.”

In its charge sheet, the Delhi Police also claimed the Delhi violence was part of “a well-planned conspiracy” to defame Modi’s government and put dozens of students and activists behind bars, most of them under the stringent UAPA.

“What a shame that the state still uses colonial draconian laws to jail dissenters,” activist and poet Nabiya Khan wrote on Twitter. “It also shows that the fight for truth and justice is a long one and will continue.”

New Delhi-based activist Shabnam Hashmi told Al Jazeera the denial of bail to Khalid was an “absolute travesty of justice”.

“Those responsible for hate-mongering and giving those speeches are roaming free. We condemn this,” she said.

“There is no reason why he (Khalid) should be kept behind bars which implies that there is no space for free speech or peaceful assembly in present India.”

In its statement, Amnesty said Khalid’s continued detention under the UAPA “runs absolutely counter to the international human rights law and standards” and called on the Indian authorities to “immediately and unconditionally” release him and other human rights defenders “arbitrarily detained solely for expressing their opposition”.

Source: Al Jazeera