(CRNI/IFEX) - Over 30 human rights groups which are members of IFEX or partners of the Cartoonists Rights Network International have signed a letter to the Indian authorities calling for charges to be dropped against two Internet users over a cartoon circulated via e-mail:
Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh
Prime Minister's Office
South Block, Raisina Hill,
Fax: 91-11-23019545 / 91-11-23016857
President Shri Pranab Mukherjee
The President's Office c/o the President's Secretariat
India 110 004
Fax : 91-11-23017290 / 91-11-23017824
26 September 2012
Dear Prime Minister Singh and President Mukherjee,
For the sake of the free speech rights of all Indians, and for the sake of a healthy Indian democracy, the signatories of this joint letter urge you to speak out on behalf of two gentlemen who have been unconstitutionally arrested and charged with crimes for merely forwarding a very tame political collage cartoon over the Internet. The two individuals are Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra of Jadavpur University and retired engineer Subrata Sengupta. We further urge you to promote changes in the law so that other innocent citizens in the future will never have to suffer what these honorable gentlemen are now bravely enduring.
On 12 April 2012, a mob allegedly led by Trinamool Congress Party Members roughed up and kidnapped Sengupta and Mahapatra. Mahapatra was forced to sign a letter of resignation as the Assistant Secretary of the New Garia Housing Cooperative Society, and a confession in which he had to admit, falsely, that he was an active worker of the Communist Party of India-Marxist.
Literally adding insult to injury, the initial response of the Pruba Jadavpur Police to this mob attack was to haul off to jail not the assailants, but the victims. The police held the two men, one of whom is in his seventies, for nearly 16 hours. Furthermore, the Pruba Jadavpur Police did not, as regulations require, immediately inform them that the offenses for which they were being charged are bailable offenses.
The charges that these two gentlemen are now still facing, based on a complaint filed by one of the assailants, essentially consist of outraging the modesty of a woman, defamation and using the Internet to defame another. The specific crimes Mahapatra and Sengupta are charged with are Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) (work, gesture or act insulting the modesty of a woman), Section 500 of the IPC (defamation), Section 66 (b) of the Information Technology or IT Act (causing offense using a computer), and Section 114 of the IPC (abettor present when offence is committed).
The offended assailant who is so outraged by the cartoon is neither a woman nor a subject of the cartoon. His only interest in the matter is through party affiliation. He is a leader in the Trinamool Congress Party, the same party headed by Chief Minister Banerjee, a politician who is very mildly poked fun of in the cartoon.
It is outrageous that the reputations and the honor of these accomplished professionals could be so swiftly and unfairly tarnished. It is well past time that the charges against Sengupta and Mahapatra be dismissed and resoundingly denounced. Continued persecution and prosecution of these innocent men would be a clear violation of their freedom of expression rights guaranteed in Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. Victimizing them a second time in a court of law would also chip away at the foundation of the great Indian democracy.
The West Bengal Human Rights Commission (WBHRC) has already found the treatment of Mahapatra and Sengupta to be a clear "case of police excess and highhandedness." On 13 August 2012, after a nearly three-month investigation initiated into the legality of the arrests, the WBHRC concluded, "The government must compensate Mahapatra and Sengupta for the manner in which they were arrested from their residential complex and detained" in the police lockup. The WBHRC recommended departmental proceedings against the two arresting officers while ordering the West Bengal government to pay both Mahapatra and Sengupta each Rs. 50,000 (approximately US$900).
While not having the authority to dismiss the charges against them, the WBHRC in very clear and powerful prose warned what a conviction of these men would mean for all Indians. To quote that opinion, "Citizens who are airing critical opinions about the ruling party cannot be picked up from their residence by the police at the instance of an agitated mob whose members are unhappy with the critical views of those two persons. If this is allowed to continue then not only the human rights of the dissenters will perish, free speech, which is the life blood of democracy, will also be gagged. Constitutional provisions will be reduced to parchment promises and we will be headed towards a totalitarian regime in complete negation of democratic values in the largest democracy of the world."
For the sake of these innocent men as well as for the sake of society, we urge you to one, speak out against this potential miscarriage of justice, and two, do everything in your power to amend the laws so that a private citizen can never again highjack the criminal justice system for a purely partisan purpose.
Aliansi Jurnalis Independen/Alliance of Independent Journalists
Association of Caribbean Media Workers
Cambodian Center for Human Rights
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Globe International Center
Initiative for Freedom of Expression - Turkey
International Press Institute
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance
Media Institute of Southern Africa
Pacific Islands News Association
Pakistan Press Foundation
Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms - MADA
Association of American Editorial Cartoonists
Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Asia-Pacific
MISA South Africa