A United Nations rights expert has slammed India’s prolonged detention of a rights activist with disabilities as “inhumane”, citing grave concerns for his health and demanding an immediate release.
Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, on Monday raised the alarm about the nearly decade-long detention of Gokarakonda Naga “GN” Saibaba, a longstanding defender of the rights of minorities in India.
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“India’s persistent detention of human rights defender GN Saibaba is an inhumane and senseless act,” the independent expert’s statement said.
“His continued detention is shameful. It bears all the hallmarks of a State seeking to silence a critical voice,” she said.
Saibaba, a former English professor at Delhi University who is 90 percent disabled and bound to a wheelchair after suffering from a spinal disorder and polio as a child, was arrested in 2014.
He was sentenced to life in prison three years under India’s Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for alleged links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoists), although various UN rights experts have raised grave concerns about his prosecution, Lawlor pointed out.
She and other UN rights experts are appointed by the Human Rights Council but they do not speak on behalf of the UN.
Locked in cell with no window
India’s Scroll.in news website in a report on Tuesday said the Bombay High Court acquitted Saibaba in October last year, holding that a court in Maharashtra state had charged the activist under the UAPA without sanctions from the federal government.
“However, the order was suspended by the Supreme Court on [a] petition filed by the Maharashtra government challenging the order,” said the report.
UN expert Lawlor pointed out that apart from two short periods on bail, Saibaba had been held in Maharashtra’s Nagpur Central Jail since his initial arrest, adding that his condition there “is a matter of serious concern”.
“Mr Saibaba has been detained in a high security ‘anda barracks’ in conditions incompatible with his status as a wheelchair user,” she said.
She highlighted that his small cell had no window and a wall made of iron bars, “exposing him to extreme weather, especially in the scorching summer heat”.
Lawlor, who said she was in contact with the Indian government regarding the case, stressed that countries have an obligation to uphold prisoners’ right to health and dignity.
“Prison authorities must ensure that prisoners with disabilities are not discriminated against, including by ensuring accessibility and providing reasonable accommodation,” she said.
The expert warned that Saibaba’s health “has severely deteriorated in detention”.
“He should be released,” she said.