(New York) – The Indian authorities should immediately release the prominent human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, drop all charges against her, and stop their relentless attacks against her, Human Rights Watch said today. The police said they are investigating Setalvad, and two former senior police officers who turned whistleblowers, for criminal conspiracy and forgery for their activities while pursuing accountability for the 2002 mob violence targeting Muslims in Gujarat state.
Setalvad is well known for her work in supporting the victims of the 2002 riots, which killed over 1,000 people, and for seeking the prosecution of senior officials, including then-Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who was elected prime minister in 2014. The complaint filed by Gujarat police also names Sanjiv Bhatt and R.B. Sreekumar, the two former senior police officers who spoke out about complicity by officials during the riots. In 2002, Hindu mobs in Gujarat targeted Muslims to avenge an attack on a train that caused the death of 59 Hindu pilgrims.
“These arrests are clearly reprisals for pursuing justice for victims of the Gujarat riots and attempting to hold those who were in power accountable,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “No one can deny that the violence occurred, or that there needs to be justice, and yet the authorities have been pursuing criminal charges against Teesta Setalvad for years now in an attempt to silence her.”
After the riots, based on submissions by activists including Setalvad, India’s National Human Rights Commission strongly condemned the Gujarat government for its failure to deliver justice. The Supreme Court rebuked the authorities and local justice system for protecting those responsible for abuses, ordered new investigations, and directed the government to provide protection to witnesses and victims.
A 2002 Human Rights Watch report on the riots found that the Gujarat authorities failed to take adequate steps to end the violence and had interfered in investigations by targeting activists. In 2005, the US government denied Modi a diplomatic visa to visit the United States and revoked his existing 10-year business or tourist visa, citing violations of religious freedom.
The Gujarat authorities have been hounding Setalvad for nearly two decades, filing a slew of false charges, many of which remain pending, manipulating the criminal justice system as a threat. The courts have stood with her in some of these cases. In 2004, the Supreme Court rejected allegations that she had coerced a witness to give false evidence and in February 2012, the Supreme Court, in a case in which she was accused of illegally exhuming bodies of riot victims, had said it was a “100 percent spurious case to victimize” her and that bringing such a case “does no credit to the state of Gujarat in any way.”
Setalvad was detained on June 25, a day after the Supreme Court dismissed a petition filed by Zakia Jafri, the widow of Ehsan Jafri, a member of parliament who was murdered during the riots. In her petition, with the support of Setalvad’s organization, Citizens for Justice and Peace, Jafri had challenged the report of a special investigation team that had absolved Modi of involvement in the riots.
In its judgment, the Supreme Court said the plea was filed “to keep the pot boiling … for ulterior design.” It said that “all those involved in such abuse of process, need to be in the dock and proceeded with in accordance with law.” Soon after, the union home affairs minister in the Modi administration, Amit Shah, hit out at Setalvad, saying she and her organization had “given baseless information about the riots to the police.”
Setalvad is accused of forgery, filing false charges, criminal conspiracy, and fabricating false evidence with intent to cause a person to be convicted of a capital offense. Sreekumar was also arrested after the complaint. Bhatt, previously convicted of murder in 2019 in a case dating back 30 years that appeared to be politically motivated, faces new allegations. Setalvad and Sreekumar have been detained in police custody until July 2.
In 2016, the Indian government also canceled the registration of Setalvad’s organization under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, preventing the group from receiving foreign funding. The authorities have raided Setalvad’s home and office multiple times, frozen her bank accounts, and vilified her publicly. After she was arrested, Setalvad wrote a complaint, saying, “I seriously fear for my life given the animosity of the Gujarat state police.”
Setalvad’s arrest has prompted condemnation from opposition political parties, media associations, and human rights groups. Mary Lawlor, United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders, expressed deep concern over Setalvad’s arrest and said, “Defending human rights is not a crime. I call for her release and an end to persecution by the Indian state.”
Human Rights Watch has documented stalled efforts to investigate and prosecute cases of riots inside Gujarat and found that activists and lawyers involved in the cases have been harassed and intimidated. It has taken repeated interventions by the Supreme Court following appeals by activists and victims’ families to order re-investigations, oversee independent inquiries in some cases, or shift trials out of Gujarat to ensure progress toward justice. Over 100 people have been convicted in these cases, although many have been released pending appeal.
“It was only because of efforts of activists like Setalvad who worked with victims and witnesses, that justice has been possible for mass violence in Gujarat,” Ganguly said. “Setalvad’s arrest is part of escalating attacks on civil society and human rights activists in India, meant to send a chilling message to all who dare to seek accountability.”