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(New York) - The Indian government should drop charges against a West Bengal human rights defender for organizing a "people's tribunal" on torture, Human Rights Watch said today.

Kirity Roy, secretary of Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), was arrested on April7, 2010, and later released on bail. The arrest relates to a public hearing about torture in police custody that he helped organize two years ago.

"The allegations against Roy are absurd, especially in a democracy that claims to celebrate its active civil society," said Meenakshi Ganguly, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Arresting people like Roy who are performing a public service by highlighting human rights violations can only be aimed at stifling the truth."

At least 25 police officers led by two inspectors arrived to arrest Roy at his residence on the morning of April 7. He was taken to the police station but not allowed to contact his lawyer. After being brought before a magistrate in the afternoon, his lawyers filed a bail petition, and he was released on bail that evening.

Roy was arrested after the West Bengal police filed charges against him and seven others for criminal conspiracy, impersonation of public officials and jurors, cheating, and fraud. The charges apparently stem from the use of a jury format at the "people's tribunal" on police torture, which the police contend misled the public about whether it was an official event. "People's tribunals" are a common method in India of bringing human rights and other social issues to broader public attention.

A police complaint, known as a First Information Report (FIR), had been filed against Roy and his colleagues on June 9, 2008, for holding a public hearing on police torture in the city of Kolkatta as part of the National Program on Prevention of Torture in India. Henri Tiphagne, the national director of the program, was one of the seven people charged along with Roy.

Roy had challenged the police complaint in the High Court.

The National Program on Prevention of Torture had organized public hearings in several states, inviting prominent civil society activists, journalists, retired judges, and senior bureaucrats, including police officials, to serve as jurists. Human Rights Watch was a member of the panel during the national hearings.

"The West Bengal police seem more interested in bullying people who want to educate the public about torture than taking action to address the problem," Ganguly said.

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