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UN Human Rights Chief slams India for stifling NGOs’ voices

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BY S VENKAT NARAYAN
Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI, October 20:

United Nations Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday expressed regret at the tightening of space for human rights NGOs in India by applying vaguely worded laws that constrain their activities and restrict foreign funding.

Bachelet asked the Indian government to safeguard the rights of human rights defenders and NGOs, and their ability to carry on with their work on behalf of the groups they represent.

“India has long had a strong civil society, which has been at the forefront of ground-breaking human rights advocacy within the country and globally,” she said.

“But I am concerned that vaguely defined laws are increasingly being used to stifle these voices.”

In a statement, Bachelet specifically cited as “worrying” the use of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), which a number of UN human rights bodies have expressed concern about, because it is “vaguely worded and overbroad in its objective”.

The act prohibits the receipt of foreign funds “for any activities prejudicial to the public interest”. The act, which was adopted in 2010 and amended last month, has had a “detrimental impact on the right to freedom of association and expression of human rights NGOs, and as a result on their ability to serve as effective advocates to protect and promote human rights in India”, the statement said.

There was no immediate response from Indian officials to Bachelet’s comments.

The statement said it was expected that the new amendments to FCRA will create “even more administrative and practical hurdles for such advocacy-based NGOs”. The statement noted that Amnesty International was compelled to close its offices in India after its bank accounts were frozen over alleged violation of FCRA.

“The FCRA has been invoked over the years to justify an array of highly intrusive measures, ranging from official raids on NGO offices and freezing of bank accounts, to suspension or cancellation of registration, including of civil society organisations that have engaged with UN human rights bodies,” Bachelet said.

“I am concerned that such actions based on the grounds of vaguely defined ‘public interest’ leave this law open to abuse, and that it is indeed actually being used to deter or punish NGOs for human rights reporting and advocacy that the authorities perceive as critical in nature. Constructive criticism is the lifeblood of democracy. Even if the authorities find it uncomfortable, it should never be criminalised or outlawed in this way,” she added.

The statement noted that activists and human rights defenders had come under mounting pressure in India in recent months, particularly over mass protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act across the country earlier this year.

“More than 1,500 people have reportedly been arrested in relation to the protests, with many charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act—a law which has also been widely criticised for its lack of conformity with international human rights standards,” the statement said.

Charges have been filed under this law against individuals in connection with demonstrations dating back to 2018, including the 83-year-old Catholic priest Stan Swamy, whom the statement described as a long-standing activist engaged in defending the rights of marginalised groups.

“I urge the government to ensure that no one else is detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly – and to do its utmost, in law and policy, to protect India’s robust civil society,” Bachelet said.

“I also urge the authorities to carefully review the FCRA for its compliance with international human rights standards and to release people charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for simply exercising basic human rights that India is obligated to protect.”

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Sajith blames ‘Viyathmaga doc’

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Cause of Mahara Prison riot:

By Saman Indrajith

The recent Mahara Prison riot erupted as 120 inmates afflicted with COVID-19 had been taken there from the Welikada prison at the behest of a Director in charge of prisoners’ health, who was a Viyathmaga member, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa told Parliament yesterday.

“Many explanations have been given by ministers about the riot at Mahara Prison. The number of deaths is not yet known and around 120 are wounded. One minister said that there was an invisible hand behind the clashes. Another said the motive was to bring the government into disrepute internationally. A theory was concocted that prisoners had taken some narcotic tablets called Reverse and they and fought because they wanted to see blood. But the truth is otherwise. The real cause is that 120 inmates infected with coronavirus were transferred to Mahara from the Welikada prison at the behest of a director in charge of prisoners’ health. That director is a member of the Viyathmaga. Those who were transferred to Mahara prison caused a cluster of 183 persons. As the infection spread fast there was unrest and tension. That was the reason for Mahara riots.”

He said that ministers had their own theories, but one day the truth would surface. “I hope that the ministerial committee appointed to probe the riots will conduct an impartial investigation and they will reveal the truth.”

“Prisoners have rights. I do not wish that this country would permit the perpetuation of the killing culture and state terrorism. The government members should keep in mind that there is a concept called rule of law and we all are expected to uphold it. So, we should dump those theories of Reverse tablets and strive to find the truth.”

Public Security Minister Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera: The health officer in charge of Mahara Prison is not a member of Viyathmaga.

Opposition Leader Premadasa: I did not say so. What I said was that 120 inmates were transferred from Welikada prison to the Mahara prison violating COVID-19 protocols. That order to transfer those had been given by a doctor who is a member of Viyathmaga. I do not mention his name. You can easily find it.

Chief Government Whip Highways Minister Johnston Fernando said that the Opposition leader talked of lofty ideals of prisoners’ welfare but the yahapalana government had failed to construct at least a single prison to ease the congestion in the prisons. “When I was incarcerated by your government, I was in a cell with 51 other inmates. There was no place to sleep. In the Kegalle prison, they put 225 in a hall enough for 50 inmates. The former government pre-occupied with the task of constructing new courts to imprison its political enemies but did not build a single prison for the benefit of inmates.”

Opposition Leader Premadasa: We did not want to build prisons, we built schools. Mahatma Gandhi has once said that when you open a single school, thousand prisons could be closed. We followed that.

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‘It will take four years to ensure quality of drinking water from small projects’

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By Saman Indrajith

The safety of drinking water from small scale community drinking water projects could guaranteed only after the implementation of a project to check the quality of water and that would take four years, Water Supply Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara told Parliament yesterday.

The Minister said so, when Matara District SJB MP Buddhika Pathirana pointed out that although the safety of drinking water from the National Water Supply and Drainage Board was guaranteed the same could not be said of water from small scale projects.

“There are many harmful elements in water such as lead, cadmium and mercury. We know that Water Board supplied water is purified, but water from small scale project could be contaminated with them. It is said that mercury in a CFL bulb has the potential to pollute around 6,000 litres of ground water and causing kidney diseases. This is a dangerous situation. One trillion rupees have been allocated for the Water Supply ministry. Apart from the COVID-19 threat, the biggest threat to the lives of people in this country is from non-communicable diseases. Can the ministry introduce a mechanism to provide each district with at least a single testing unit to ensure the safety of drinking water supplied by the small scale community drinking water projects.”

Water Supply Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara said that safety of water from the Water Board was guaranteed owing to sophisticated purification methods employed by treatment plants. He said that it would take at least four years to provide testing units to ensure drinking water from the small scale community drinking water projects countrywide too is safe from harmful elements.

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Teachers’ Union boss Stalin accuses govt of attempting Akila’s failed stunt

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

There was an attempt to create a new post, Director General – Sports, at the Ministry of Education and to appoint a political henchman, Ceylon Teachers Union (CTU) General Secretary, Joseph Stalin told The Island yesterday.

“According to the Education Administrative Service minute, any appointment has to be made through a competitive exam. However, this post has been created through a Cabinet paper and an SLPP henchman is to be appointed to it.”

The CTU General Secretary said that during the yahapalanaya administration, then Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam had tried to appoint a UNP henchman to the post of Director – Sports at the Ministry. Kariyawasam had been compelled to back off due to the stiff opposition of the education sector unions, Stalin said.

“The court has also ruled that people should be appointed in keeping with the Education Administrative Service Minute. The President came into power promising to uphold the rule of law, but this government, too, is attempting to undermine the education system by appointing unqualified people to high posts.”

The post of Director General – Sports would have the same perks of an Assistant Secretary and the person to be appointed was a person representing a government affiliated union, Stalin said.

“95% of unions of the education sector will oppose if the government creates this post for the benefit of a henchman. We will resort to trade union and legal action.”

Minister of Education, Prof. G. L. Peiris was not immediately available for comment.

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