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April 14, 2020 - Updated on April 15, 2020

Indian columnist arrested on trumped-up “Maoism” charge

Gautam Navlakha is seen in Srinagar on December 6, 2012. He faces up to seven years in jail (photo: Tauseef Mustafa / AFP).
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Gautam Navlakha, a well-known columnist and human rights defender who, despite serious humanitarian concerns, has been jailed on a flimsy charge brought by India’s counter-terrorism police, the National Investigation Agency (NIA).

Although he insists on his innocence, Gautam Navlakha handed himself in at NIA headquarters in New Delhi yesterday and was immediately detained. In so doing, he was complying with a detention order issued on 16 March and a supreme court decision on 8 April rejecting his bail application.

 

An editorialist for the Newsclick website, Navlakha is charged with participating in a “Maoist conspiracy” because the NIA claims, without any supporting evidence, that he was involved in inter-communal violence during a major gathering in January 2018 to mark the 200th anniversary of an important victory for India’s Dalit (“Untouchable”) community.

 

Originally arrested in August 2018, Navlakha is facing up to seven years in prison under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

 

“Virtual death sentence”

 

“We urge India’s prosecutors to order Gautam Navlakha’s immediate and unconditional release and to drop the completely baseless charges against him,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

 

“His arrest is clearly a politically-motivated reprisal for his articles condemning human rights violations in India. As well as constituting an utterly Kafkaesque denial of justice, jailing him the middle of the Covid-19 crisis poses a serious threat to his health.”

 

Navlakha is 65 years old and has cardiac problems. According to his lawyer, imprisoning him during the coronavirus crisis “is virtually a death sentence.”

 

In a moving statement written just before he surrendered, Navlakha said he was pinning his hopes on “a speedy and fair trial” but lamented the fact that he was being tried under legislation in which “an accused is guilty unless proven innocent.”

 

As RSF reported last November, accusations of “Maoism” are often used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to smear and harass journalists.

 

India is ranked 140th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.