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UN rapporteur calls on India to end attacks on human rights activists in Kashmir

Lowler's remarks signal a growing frustration among human rights experts over India's sliding human rights record
Indian paramilitary troopers patrol a street during snowfall in Srinagar, on 30 January 2023 [AFP]

India must immediately end its crackdown on Kashmiri human rights defenders, a UN expert has said, following the arrests of noted human rights defender Khurram Parvez and journalist Irfan Mehraj earlier this week. 

In a statement released on Friday, Mary Lowler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, lamented about the shrinking landscape for civil society in the valley and called for the immediate release and the closing of the investigations against Parvez and Mehraj.

“The arrest and detention of persons for exercising their human rights are arbitrary. There must be accountability and remedy where such abusive actions are taken.”

“Time and time again, the government has been called upon to address the fundamental issues with the country's anti-terrorism framework and its misuse to smear and silence human rights defenders,” Lawlor said.

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Lowler's strong remarks signal a growing frustration among human rights experts over India's sliding human rights record.

Parvez, director of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), was arrested on 22 March under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for funding terrorism “under the garb of protection of human rights”. 

Two days earlier, the National Investigation Agency had summoned noted Kashmiri journalist Mehraj, who had worked with JKCCS, and arrested him for his association with the NGO.

Parvez had already been in police custody since November 2021 on a previous terrorism charge.

Lawlor said the attack on JKCCS shows that Indian authorities appeared "to be intensifying the long-standing repression of Kashmiri civil society". 

"The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) carries out essential work monitoring human rights. Their research and analysis of human rights violations are of huge value, including to international organisations seeking to ensure accountability and non-repetition of abuses,” Lawlor said.

The UN has repeatedly raised concerns over the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) that allows the designation of any individual as a "terrorist" without the need to establish membership or association with a banned group. 

Critics say the act is applied as a means of coercion against civil society, the media, and human rights defenders in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.

The public relations officer at India's National Investigation Agency did not reply to MEE's request for comment by the time of publication.

'No journalism allowed'

In Srinagar, Mehraj's arrest has left the fraternity demoralised and concerned about the future of journalism in the region. Mehraj is the fourth Kashmiri journalist to be arrested over the past two years.

His arrest drew immediate outrage from several human rights bodies including Amnesty International, the Editors Guild of India, the Press Club of India, as well as the Journalist Federation of Kashmir. 

"The arrest of Irfan Mehraj is a continuation of the relentless assault on free press and the freedom of speech in Jammu and Kashmir. We demand his immediate release!" The All India Lawyer's Association for Justice said in a statement.

Likewise, Amnesty International described Mehraj's arrest as a "travesty".

"The stifling of the rights to freedom of expression and association continue unabated in Kashmir,” Amnesty said.

Mehraj, who has published with Al Jazeera English and DW-World, is also an editor of the Indian news site, TCN Live.

A senior Kashmiri journalist told MEE that Mehraj's arrest seemed to be tailored as a message to journalists in the region.

"From time to time, someone or the other is going to be picked up, just to keep the message relevant: that no opinion will be tolerated. No criticism will be tolerated. No journalism will be allowed," the journalist said.

"Almost everyone is so fatigued that no one knows how to feel about anything anymore," the journalist added.

In 2019, Indian-controlled Kashmir's semi-autonomous status was revoked by Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government.

In August 2019, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report which alleged that Indian authorities were increasingly restricting freedom of speech and basic rights in the valley.

"The government’s repressive policies and failure to investigate and prosecute alleged security force abuses have increased insecurity among Kashmiris," HRW said.

Since 1947, both India and Pakistan have laid claim to the disputed region in its entirety, with each governing parts of it.

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