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Don't make use of archaic sedition law to curb freedom of expression: Amnesty on Kerala youth's arrest

By Our Representative
Amnesty International India has sharply criticized the arrest and detention of a 25-year old man accused of sedition for allegedly disrespecting India’s national symbols, pointing out that this suggests "how archaic laws continue to be used to curb free speech in India.” In a statement, Amnesty, a human rights organization with presence in several countries, said, “On August 20, 2014, police in Kerala arrested Salman M for allegedly making catcalls and not standing up when India’s national anthem was being played at a cinema two days earlier.”
This made the authorities accuse him of “sedition, insulting the Indian national flag and Constitution, and preventing the singing of the national anthem”, Amnesty said, adding, not only this, Salman M was also accused under section 66A of India’s Information Technology Act for allegedly publishing abusive social media posts about Independence Day on August 15. A Thiruvananthapuram court denied him bail on 25 August”. The top NGO apprehends, Salman M could “face a life sentence if convicted.”
Giving the statement on behalf of Amnesty, Shailesh Rai, programmes director, said, “A criminal charge for such conduct, even if some might regard it as offensive, is completely unwarranted, Nobody should have to go to prison merely because they are accused of causing offense. The Constitution of India and international law recognize the right to freedom of expression, and this right extends to speech that offends or disturbs. Authorities must respect this fundamental right, not seek to curb it.”
Demanding that the case against Salman M should be “dropped and he must be released”, Amnesy stressed, “Indian laws on sedition and online free speech do not meet international human rights standards on freedom of expression. These laws must be urgently repealed.” It added, “India’s archaic sedition law has been used to harass and persecute activists and others for their peaceful exercise of their right to free expression.”
Pointing out how Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code defines sedition as any act or attempt “to bring into hatred or contempt, or…excite disaffection towards the government”, Amnesty recalled, even “Mahatma Gandhi had called the law ;the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen’.”
It added, “Section 66A of the Information Technology Act criminalizes acts including sending information that is ‘grossly offensive’ or causes ‘annoyance’ and ‘inconvenience’. The law is imprecise and overbroad. It can be used to violate legitimate exercise of the right to free speech and can lead to arbitrary arrests. A number of activists and legal experts have challenged the constitutionality of section 66A.”
Amnesty pointed out, “The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a state party, has expressed concern regarding laws on issues such as disrespect for flags and symbols.” Amnesty’s protest against the sedition law comes following a submission it made before the Law Commission of India in June 2014 (click HERE to read) where it insisted on the need to undertake critical legal reforms to better defend the right to free speech.
Saying that this is important against the backdrop of a “growing trend of intolerance towards dissent and criticism”, elucidating the submission, Amnesty underlined, “Authorities have shown a worrying eagerness to arrest and detain people for the lawful exercise of their constitutional rights to free speech, especially when it concerns the new Prime Minister.”
Giving examples, Amnesty said, “In May 2014, police in Bangalore arrested a man for sending a photograph on his phone depicting Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a funeral pyre. The same month, police in Panaji, Goa filed a First Information Report against a man who said in an online post that if Narendra Modi came to power, it would lead to a holocaust.”

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