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New Gujarat govt has a chance to break from past, uphold human rights: Amnesty

By Our Representative 

Top global NGO Amnesty International has demanded that the new BJP government in Gujarat must "prioritize and uphold human rights for all, including religious minorities and human rights defenders, who continue to face escalating repression and persecution."
“Religious minorities in the state of Gujarat, particularly Muslims have been victimized through discriminatory laws and policies which violate international human rights treaties to which India is a state party. At the same time, human rights defenders who raise their voice to stand up for the rights of marginalized communities have been relentlessly hounded and punished", said Aakar Patel, chair of the board at the Amnesty International India.
"It’s time that the next government not only roll back these repressive laws and policies but also ensure those responsible for forced eviction and abuse of power are brought to justice. Victims must be provided with access to justice and effective remedies,” he added.
In a statment issued in the wake of the BJP getting historic victory in the State assembly polls, Amnesty said, "In April 2022, the local authorities targeted, and demolished properties owned by Muslims in Khambat town of Gujarat after incidents of communal violence citing that they were built 'illegally', forcibly displacing them and causing terrible trauma and suffering."
Stating that it investigated the demolitions over a period of two months which included verifying the government notices and hearing the testimonies of those impacted, Amnesty insisted, "The demolitions were carried out without following due process."
It quoted a Muslim owner of a demolished factory as stating, “We have no hope from the police. They were present when our properties were demolished. (We) don’t want to take any action because (we) fear reprisal”, pointing out how police officials hit him and the artisans working in his factory to prevent them from collecting their belongings before they bulldozed the factory.
Another factory owner, whose unit was demolished on 28 April, told Amnesty that about 19 factories were demolished, all of which belonged to Muslims. He said, “There are residential properties next to our factories that are owned by Hindus. They were left untouched”.
A third factory owner said, his factory, which supported at least 80 people, was also destroyed even though he had taken all the requisite permissions from the local municipality and had been paying taxes and bills on time.
"On the evening of 26 April, after the factory was closed, the authorities pasted a notice on my factory’s wall which was backdated to 21 April. The notice required me to respond within seven days. However, the next morning, officials from Gujarat Electricity Board, district administration and local police barged into my factory and demolished it… My entire life’s hard work has been razed to the ground", he asserted.
“Giving little notice or opportunity to business owners and families to remove their possessions and lack of any offer of alternative places to conduct business or compensation constitutes forced eviction. It is imperative that the incoming government conducts a prompt, thorough, independent, impartial and effective investigation into the cases of forced evictions and ensures that all those suspected to be responsible are brought to justice,” commented Aakar Patel.
The statement demanded that, in view of these demolitions, the new Gujarat government should abrogate the Disturbed Areas Act, 1991, amended in 2019, which allegedly "violates the right to adequate housing enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to which India is a state party which includes accessibility, affordability, habitability, location, and cultural identity as its key aspects."
It said, the Act was "originally intended to prevent distress sale of property in communally sensitive areas of Gujarat. The Act was amended in 2019 giving wide powers to the executive heads of districts to notify a particular area as 'disturbed' where any sale of property can only take place with their prior sanction."
It believed, "The discriminatory declaration of large areas as 'disturbed' and the subsequent harassment of Muslims wanting to buy residential properties in these areas by Hindu groups has confined the minority Muslim community to separate, densely populated areas often lacking basic civic amenities and minimized their political representation."
Applying Disturbed Areas Act, in April 2022 local authorities targeted and demolished properties owned by Muslims in Khambat
Further demanding the annulment of the 2003 Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, amended in 2021, the statement said, it "effectively criminalizing all inter-faith marriages in the guise of prohibiting forced conversion by 'allurement' and 'temptation'," noting, "It allowed any blood relative of the ‘victim’, many of whom are largely Hindu women who marry outside their religion, to complain against such a marriage and widened the net of harassment by targeting anyone who aided the marriage or provided advice."
It added, "In absolute violation of the principles of criminal justice, it reversed the burden of proof by placing it on the persons accused of causing a forced conversion instead of the prosecution. Even though the Gujarat High Court temporarily stayed parts of the legislation, that has not deterred the State from harassing many inter-faith couples and their families in the last one year, according to local media reports."
“The combined impact of all these laws, policies and practices appears to amount to a collective punishment, whereby the Muslim community as a whole is penalized in the state of Gujarat. Such punitive actions are a serious violation of international human rights law and need to be reversed immediately,” said Aakar Patel.
Recalling how on 26 June 2022, the Gujarat police arrested renowned human rights defender Teesta Setalvad and former Director General of Police RB Sreekumar "in a direct reprisal for questioning the Gujarat government’s human rights record", the statement further said, "Their detention came a day after the Supreme Court dismissed a petition filed by Teesta along with a 2002 Gujarat riot victim seeking investigation into the role of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was then the State’s Chief minister."
"In the past, Teesta Setalvad has been routinely harassed, with authorities using India’s overly broad and vague financial laws including the Foreign Regulation Contribution Act in what appears to be a reprisal for her work on providing legal aid to the 2002 riot victims", it added.
It recalled, "On 25 September, the Gujarat Police detained award-winning human rights defender Sandeep Pandey and six others just before they were scheduled to commence a rally to show solidarity with gang-rape survivor Bilkis Bano whose 11 convicted rapists were released prematurely by the government. Five months pregnant at the time of the incident, Bilkis Bano’s seven family members were killed including her three-year-old daughter during the 2002 riots."
Stating that the new State government "has a chance to break away from the past and start upholding the rights of religious minorities and human rights defenders and protecting them from years of abuse and demonization", Aakar Patel said, "The new leadership must prioritize the human rights of everyone and take steps to reform legislations, policies, and practices to ensure that all the people of Gujarat can freely exercise their human rights."

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