Political Prisoners in India – Free Bhima Koregaon human rights defenders (BK16)

Today, Friday 1 October, SOLIFONDS and the Women’s Rights Group Zurich of Amnesty International Switzerland handed over several hundred signatures for a petition for the release of political prisoners (BK16) to the Indian Embassy in Berne, Switzerland. However, no one from the embassy was willing to receive the petition.

Indian trade unionist and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj has been in prison for over three years – without evidence and without a trial. Sudha Bharadwaj is also known in Switzerland because she struggled for the direct employment of contract workers at the Swiss cement company Holcim in India, as ruled by law. She and 15 other human rights defenders, intellectuals, lawyers and cultural workers were accused of being involved in the violence at Bhima Koregaon* and of planning a conspiracy against the government. Forged documents, which forensic investigations revealed had been smuggled into the computers of accused persons by hackers, serve as “evidence”. A trial has not yet taken place.

All the accused had campaigned for the dalits, adivasis and for women’s rights, and criticised the policies of the Hindu nationalist government. It is obvious that they were criminalised for their engagement.

Since the prisoners are charged under the UAPA, release on bail is virtually impossible. This is despite the fact that some of the accused are of advanced age, have comorbidities or have contracted covid-19 or other infections while in prison. The 84-year-old Jesuit priest Stan Swamy, who suffered from Parkinson disease and whose health steadily deteriorated in prison, died in custody on 5th July. His release on bail had previously been refused.

Sudha Bharadwaj’s health has also reportedly deteriorated over the months. Of particular concern is the fact that Byculla Women’s Prison, where Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen and Jyoti Jagtab are incarcerated, has recently become a Covid-19 hotspot once again and many prisoners have fallen ill.

Through the petition submitted today, SOLIFONDS, the Zurich Women’s Rights Group of Amnesty International and hundreds of signatories urgently demand the immediate release of the political prisoners in the Bhima Koregaon case.

The petition demands that the charges against the accused be dropped. The petition also calls on the Indian government to ensure that activists, human rights defenders, media professionals, academics and opposition politicians are able to peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of expression and association. Laws that criminalise the human right to freedom of expression should be repealed.

Despite early notification, the petition could not be handed over physically to the Indian Embassy in Switzerland and and therefore had to be sent by registered post.

1. Oktober 2021