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India: Arrest and detention of five human rights defenders investigating Dalit human rights violations
Human rights defenders Mr Gnana Diraviam, Mr Anandan, Ms Bharathi Pillai, Ms Niharga Priya and Ms Sudha have been arrested and remanded in judicial custody since 15 August 2010.
All five were attending a human rights monitoring training course run by human rights organisations, the Dalit Foundation and People's Watch. The Dalit Foundation is an organisation working to eliminate caste discrimination and caste-based violence, with a particular emphasis on Dalit women and manual scavengers, who are amongst the most severely disadvantaged groups within the caste hierarchy. The Dalit Foundation is a grant-making organisation in India which works particularly on natural resources, health and education rights. People's Watch is a national human rights organisation actively working to create a human rights culture across India, particularly through human rights monitoring, legal support and human rights education.
From 11-20 August 2010, People's Watch organised a training session on Dalit Human Rights Monitoring in association with the Dalit Foundation in Nagamalai Puthukottai, near Madurai in Tamil Nadu, with 61 participants from around the country. The training included two days of fieldwork experience in fact-finding. Gnana Diraviam, Anandan, Bharathi Pillai, Niharga Priya and Sudha made up one of thirteen monitoring teams taking part in the training.
On 15 August 2010, at approximately 6.30pm, as part of their fieldwork exercise, the group went to Veeravanallur Police Station, in Tirunelveli District of Tamil Nadu, on the basis of information received about a Dalit youth who had allegedly been tortured by police officials at the station. Intending to gather information in relation to the case, the group met with a Sub Inspector, Ms P. Roswin Savimo, and an Inspector of Police, Mr T. Murugesan. The group explained their participation in the training programme, requested permission to be provided with documents relating to the case and showed Mr Murugesan their training manual which included details on the Dalit Foundation and People's Watch. Mr Murugesan questioned the human rights defenders and kept them in an office in the police station for some time.
At approximately 9.30pm Mr Ramu, the Deputy Superintendent of Police of Ambasamudram, an adjacent district, arrived, after which the group was moved to another room which was guarded by three constables. When the three women human rights defenders requested to leave, offering to come back the next day, Mr Ramu told them that they had to stay since they had to be questioned thoroughly. Gnana Diraviam then used his mobile phone to call Mr Pandian, a Program Assistant from the training program, at which point Mr Murugesan confiscated the group's mobile phones.
The group was held at the police station until 11.00pm, during which time each individual was taken separately to have their identification details recorded. The five human rights defenders were then charged using the Indian Penal Code under Section 170 (impersonating a public servant), Section 353 (assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharge of his duty), Section 416 (cheating by impersonation) and Section 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation). None of the group were informed at that time that they were being arrested or told the details of the charges against them. A bail hearing has been scheduled for 18 August 2010 and if granted bail the five human rights defenders will be released but the charges against them shall remain.
While this was taking place, Mr Pandian, Mr Henri Tiphagne, and other staff of the Tamil Nadu Unit of People's Watch were attempting to contact the Veeravanallur Police Station and the police officials concerned, but their calls were either ignored or cut off. Later that evening another member of People's Watch, Mr Chithirai Selvan, went to the police station to try and meet the group, but was not allowed to do so. Instead he was made to sign some papers by the police without being told what they were before being asked to leave the station immediately. Shortly afterwards the Regional Human Rights Coordinator of People's Watch, Mr S. Ganesan, went to the police station and was told that the group had been taken to the house of the Judicial Magistrate in the nearby town of Cheranmahadevi in order to be remanded into judicial custody. They appeared before the Judicial Magistrate in his home at 11.45pm, when they learned about the charges being filed against them and were told that the complainant in the case against them was the Sub Inspector of the Police, Ms P. Roswin Savimo, who was present at the hearing.
The group was then taken to hospital for medical examination. At approximately 2.00am, the three women human rights defenders were transferred to Kokarakulam Women's Sub Jail in the city of Tirunelveli. The two male human rights defenders were taken to Ambasamudram Sub Jail. In the case remand report Henri Tiphagne, who is also a member of the National Human Rights Commission's National Core Group of NGOs, is referred to as 'the absconding accused' despite the fact that to date no charges have been brought against him, nor was he present at the police station at the time of the arrests.
Front Line believes that the arrest and detention of Gnana Diraviam, Anandan, Bharathi Pillai, Niharga Priya and Sudha, as well as the inclusion of Henri Tiphagne's name in the remand report, is directly related to their work investigating human rights violations, particularly in relation to the Dalit community. Front Line is concerned for the physical and psychological integrity of the aforementioned human rights defenders.