(New York) – Indian authorities should end politically motivated intimidation and harassment of human rights activists who have been pursuing justice for victims of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat state. While all nongovernmental organizations should fully adhere to financial regulations, police in Gujarat state appear to be acting to undermine the human rights work of the activists Teesta Setalvad and her husband, Javed Anand.
Setalvad is well known for her work in supporting the riot victims and for seeking criminal charges against scores of officials including Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his alleged involvement in the riots as the state’s chief minister in 2002.
Gujarat police accuse the activists of misusing funds donated to their nongovernmental organizations Citizens for Justice and Peace and Sabrang Trust to support the riot victims and want to detain the couple for interrogation. The activists say that the disputed fund transfers were used to reimburse them for legitimate work-related expenses. They said they will cooperate with the investigation and should not be detained.
“The activists have agreed to cooperate though they believe the allegations are politically motivated, but Gujarat authorities shouldn’t be using these laws to sweep away serious human rights concerns,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Attempts to harass or discredit activists will not make the massive abuses during the 2002 Gujarat violence disappear.”
The Indian Supreme Court on February 19, 2015, stayed the arrest of the couple. “Why do you need activist Teesta Setalvad and her husband in custody to question them?” the court said. Setalvad and Anand had sought the intervention of the Supreme Court in anticipation of a possible arrest on the grounds that the investigation constitutes a political vendetta against them.
The Gujarat police are investigating allegations that Setalvad and some other members of her organization misappropriated for personal use funds collected for building a memorial to the victims of the 2002 riots. Setalvad and Anand have provided detailed documents to the investigating authorities asserting that the plan to build the memorial was dropped because very little money had been collected while the price of land had increased significantly.
The police accuse them of using the funds to pay personal credit card expenses. The activists say that they didn’t have a separate credit card for business expenses, but used trust funds only to reimburse business expenses.
Gujarat state officials have stalled efforts to investigate and prosecute riot cases, harassed and intimidated activists and lawyers involved, and in some instances obstructed justice, Human Rights Watch said. Following appeals by activists and victims’ families, the Supreme Court ordered re-investigations, oversaw independent inquiries in some cases, or shifted trials out of Gujarat to ensure that they would be fair.
Thus far, over a 120 people have been convicted for their role in the riots, including a member of the Gujarat state cabinet.
In 2012 a Supreme Court-ordered investigation decided that there was not enough evidence to prove Modi’s direct complicity. However, an amicus curiae – friend of the court – appointed by the court to monitor the process concluded instead that Modi’s role should be investigated further on several counts. Referring to a key witness whose testimony was dismissed by the investigation team, the amicus curiae noted that “the stage for believing or disbelieving a witness arises after trial i.e. once the entire evidence is placed before the court for its consideration.”
In March 2014, Zakia Jafri, the widow of a murdered member of parliament, filed a petition in Gujarat High Court with the support of Setalvad’s organization to appeal for the prosecution of senior officials, including Modi. In one of the most horrific attacks during the 2002 riots, Ehsan Jafri and 68 others were killed in a mob attack. Jafri said that her husband had repeatedly called senior police officials and the chief minister’s office to seek protection but that the state authorities failed to respond.
The petition alleges that the state authorities were complicit in the riots and destroyed key records. A Human Rights Watch 2002 report on the riots found that the authorities failed to take adequate steps to end the violence.
Authorities in Gujarat had filed charges against Setalvad twice before, but the Supreme Court rejected them. In 2004, she was accused of coercing a witness into giving false evidence; in 2010, she was accused of illegally exhuming the bodies of riot victims.
“Justice for India’s terrible tragedies, whether the 2002 Gujarat riots or the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, won’t happen so long as the authorities place roadblocks in the way,” Ganguly said.