Amnesty International India has demanded immediate release of human rights activists detained in India as undertrials under the repressive Unlawful (Prevention) Activities Act.

The act gives authorities sweeping power to hold and jail people without charge.

In 2018, as part of a massive crackdown on human rights defenders in India, nine prominent activists — Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Vernon Gonsalves and Varavara Rao — were arrested by the Pune police.

Two years later, the crackdown on human rights defenders continued with the arrests of Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde.

Amnesty on Saturday said these human rights activists suffer from comorbidity, putting them at a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.

In a statement, Amnesty said: “Overcrowded Indian prisons have become hotbeds of coronavirus cases. At least 3 people have died and 200 infected across Maharashtra prisons because of COVID-19.”

“Yet the National Investigative Agency continues to oppose bail pleas filed on medical grounds by these human rights activists,” it said.

“The order for their arrests are in complete contradiction with the Supreme Court’s previous orders to release prisoners to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has put both Gautam and Anand, who are above 65 years old, at risk,” said the campaign started by Amnesty for their release.

Across India, the 11 are hailed as brave activists, committed to the causes of the poorest and most marginalized communities in the country, noted Amnesty India, adding that the activists have been fearless vocal critics of the government for the sake of the people.

“Despite this reputation, the police have claimed the activists were allegedly involved in the violence that erupted between Dalits [an underprivileged group, also widely known as the ‘untouchables’, in the Indian society] and Hindu nationalists in January 2018 in Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra. Following the arrests, a smear campaign was launched against the activists. The central government claims they are ‘anti-nationals’ working against the country,” said Amnesty India.

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