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India urged to investigate beating of rights activist, harassment of group uncovering security force abuses

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 19 December 2014.

Indian authorities should immediately investigate allegations that West Bengal police beat a rights activist and have been harassing his group for reporting on security force abuses, Human Rights Watch said today.

The authorities should drop politically motivated charges against members of Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), a nongovernmental organization based in Kolkata that has long reported on abuses by the police and Border Security Force.

"The alleged beating of a rights activist by West Bengal police coupled with dubious criminal charges shows a shocking disregard for the role rights groups play in bringing such abuses to an end," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Instead of targeting the messenger to hide their wrongdoings, security forces should ensure that those who commit them are punished."

Around midnight on November 21, 2014, West Bengal police arrested Ajimuddin Sarkar, a rights activist with MASUM, at his home in Murshidabad district. MASUM reported that the police took Sarkar to the Raninagar police station, where they kicked and beat him with rifle butts and sticks throughout the night before presenting him in court the next day. The magistrate released Sarkar on bail and ordered a medical examination. Sarkar received hospital care for injuries to his ribs and back, and is undergoing physiotherapy and psychiatric counselling.

The authorities charged Sarkar and MASUM's secretary, Kirity Roy, under section 12 of the Indian Passport Act with alleged misuse of their passports in June 2013. The police have issued a warrant for Roy's arrest. MASUM believes the complaints were filed by the Border Security Force because of its work documenting torture and other human rights violations by the troops.

MASUM activists told Human Rights Watch that Sarkar's arrest follows a series of falsified cases that the police have filed against them and their relatives in an alleged effort to keep them busy defending themselves instead of documenting abuses. Another criminal complaint for attempted culpable homicide was filed against MASUM activists in November at the Domkal police station after MASUM organized a medical camp in Murshidabad to assist torture victims. Those charged were released on bail on December 16. Several MASUM activists are being prosecuted for organizing a "People's Tribunal against Torture" in 2008 and allegedly misusing terms such as "jury" and "tribunal" that can mislead the public.

In 2010, Human Rights Watch, in collaboration with MASUM and the Bangladeshi group Odhikar, published a report documenting excessive use of force and other serious abuses by the Border Security Force against Bangladeshi cattle smugglers and Indian border residents. The organizations found that the border guards had shot and killed over 1,000 Indian and Bangladeshi nationals over the course of a decade.

The Indian government responded to the report by ordering the security forces to use restraint, mandating the use of rubber bullets instead of live ammunition. Although the killings decreased, MASUM activists continued to document beatings and other abuses at the border, leading to intimidation and threats by the security forces. Indian law provides the police and Border Security Force with effective immunity from criminal prosecution, but the activists' complaints have led to internal inquiries.

MASUM said it has reported numerous threats, intimidation, and harassment against its rights defenders and their families to the National Human Rights Commission in recent years. In July 2013, the commission received a complaint that a police officer along with about 15 local thugs had gone to Sarkar's house and threatened him because of a complaint he had filed against the police. The commission reported that, "It is a matter of concern that existence of the human rights defenders is under threat in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal," and asked its investigation team to look into the matter.

But no action has been taken. Following Sarkar's arrest in November and the submission of a new complaint, the commission said it has sought a report from the police and the state authorities within four weeks so it can take further action.

Authorities have a special obligation to protect human rights defenders against risks that they may face as a direct result of their work. In 1998, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which states that individuals and associations have the right "to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms."

The declaration provides that governments shall have the duty to "take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of [human rights defenders] against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary actions" as a consequence of their efforts to promote human rights.

"It's outrageous that human rights activists are being charged with trumped-up offenses while security force members implicated in serious abuses escape prosecution," Ganguly said. "The West Bengal authorities should investigate all reported instances of intimidation, harassment, and attacks on human rights defenders, and prosecute those responsible."

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