Amnesty International India has described as "disappointing" the Supreme Court's recent direction asking civil rights activists Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde to surrender before jail authorities within a week in connection with the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence case.
AII executive director Avinash Kumar, in a statement, said the SC order is also at odds with the court's previous ruling where it directed the states to decongest the country's overcrowded prisons to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, thereby posing a risk to the health of the two activists.
Mentioning that Navlakha and Teltumbde have a history of working to protect the rights of some of India's most marginalized people, the international human rights body said they are to be arrested under a "draconian counter-terrorism law that has repeatedly been used to silence government critics".
"AII believes that the impending arrests of the two, along with the arrests of the nine activists in the Bhima Goregan case, are politically motivated actions that are aimed at chilling peaceful dissent. The Indian government seems to have failed in its obligation to protect human rights defenders, and the freedom of expression and assembly," Kumar alleged.
On April 3, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, urged all nations to release "every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners, and those detained for critical, dissenting views".
Both of them are above 65 years old and have underlying heart ailments, the statement said.
Kumar said the WHO in its briefing on April 8 further said that although all age groups are at risk of contracting COVID-19, older people face significant risk of developing severe illness if they contract the disease due to physiological changes that come with ageing and potential underlying health conditions.
"On one hand, the court acknowledges that overcrowded prisons present a serious threat and recommends the release of prisoners during the pandemic and then it directs two activists who have been critical of the government to surrender before the police and to be sent to jail," AAI said in the statement.
Originally, the duo, who was directed by the SC on March 16 to surrender within three weeks, moved the plea seeking extension of time on the ground that going to jail during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is "virtually a death sentence".
A bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra on Wednesday said the accused should have honoured its decision of dismissal of the anticipatory bail and the direction to surrender themselves within three weeks.
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"Though we expected that the accused would surrender, honouring the order of this court, they have not done so. We are told that in Bombay, the courts are functioning. It would have been appropriate for the accused to surrender as the courts are open and not totally closed," the apex court said on April 8.
"However, since the petitioners have enjoyed the protection for long, by way of last opportunity, we extend the time granted to surrender for one week," the bench ordered.