Human rights defenders targeted in India

Amnesty International said India is among the deadliest countries for defenders of rights related to land, territory and the environment.

In its global report ‘Deadly but Preventable Attacks: Killings and Enforced Disappearances of Those who Defend Human Rights’, , the rights watchdog said: “In India, journalists, land rights activists, and those advocating the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, Dalits and Adivasis (tribal) are among those at risk of attack.”

According to an Amnesty release, as many as 3,500 human rights defenders were killed worldwide since 1998 while the number in 2016 was 281-- a significant increase from 156 defenders killed in 2015 and 136 in 2014.

Also, 48 journalists were killed worldwide in 2016, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Asmita Basu, Programmes Director at Amnesty International India, said human rights defenders were painted as a threat to development or traditional values.

“Human rights defenders, instead of being recognised and protected by the state, are portrayed as ‘criminals’, ‘foreign agents’, ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘terrorists’, and painted as a threat to development or traditional values. Such labels are divisive, signal contempt for constitutional rights, and give a green light to further abuses,” she said, as per the release.

The report has brought together stories from around the world including that of journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was fatally shot outside her home in Bengaluru in September 2017.

It also mentioned Chhattisgarh’s Jailal Rathia, who had challenged the Adivasi land grabbing and later died of what was suspected as deliberate poisoning, and killing of Maharashtra Dalit activist Chandrakant Gaikwad.

Human rights defender and journalist Gauri Lankesh, was a champion of the right to freedom of expression and an outspoken critic of hardline Hindu groups. She had previously been threatened for her activism.

Jailal Rathia, an Adivasi community leader in Chhattisgarh, challenged the irregular acquisition and grabbing of Adivasi land. He died in March 2017 as a result of what his family suspect was a deliberate poisoning. He had been threatened on several occasions and told by the local land mafia and the state police to withdraw the petitions he had filed.

Dalit human rights defender Chandrakant Gaikwad from Maharashtra was shot and killed, allegedly by an individual against whom he had filed a complaint about committing crimes against Dalits. Gaikwad had supported victims of caste-based discrimination in accessing justice by helping them file and follow up on complaints with local authorities. He had been threatened repeatedly.

“In many cases, the deaths of defenders had been preceded by a string of threats, which authorities turned a blind eye to. Lives could have been saved if states had taken their human rights obligations seriously and acted on reports of threats and other abuses,”Asmita Basu said.

Many described how victims’ pleas for protection had been repeatedly ignored by the authorities and how the attackers had evaded justice, fueling a deadly cycle of impunity.

The report focused on the gravest of violations against human rights defenders-- killings and enforced disappearances.

“The motives behind these attacks are multiple and layered. Some people are attacked because of their legitimate activities, for example, as they stand up to powerful actors violating human rights, share information and raise awareness, or confront discriminatory public opinion and social norms. Others are attacked both for what they do and who they are,” it said.

The human rights defenders included those defending the rights of women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and indigenous peoples and minority groups, it added.

Meanwhile, another report said more than two people were killed every week on average this year defending their right to land and resources, with the Philippines recording the highest number of casualties amid a government crackdown on rural communities, a rights group said.

In the fight for land and the environment, communities around the world are locked in deadly struggles against governments, companies and criminal gangs exploiting land for products including timbre, minerals and palm oil.

At least 116 people were killed between January 1 and November 30, according to advocacy group PAN Asia Pacific (PANAP). The victims included farmers, indigenous people and activists, with women making up a tenth of the total.

The Philippines accounted for 61 victims, followed by Brazil with 22, said the report.

This has been “yet another year of continuing and intensifying attacks against rural communities that are asserting their right to land and resources”, the report said.

“Alarmingly, global and regional developments that create conditions for greater land and resource grabbing continue to emerge and fuel social conflicts and unrest in rural areas.” The number of victims this year is lower than the 171 killed in the same period last year, PANAP’s data showed.

A separate estimate by UK-based advocacy group Global Witness puts the number of victims at 170 so far this year.

The final tally could equal, or exceed that of 2016, which was the deadliest year on record with about 200 deaths, a spokeswoman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Asia, land rights defenders were also killed in India and Myanmar, and in Latin America, killings were recorded in Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Guatemala and Venezuela, according to PANAP.

Harassment of women land activists in Southeast Asia is on the rise, the report said, while in Myanmar, the government has taken over vast swathes of land in Rakhine state after driving out hundreds of thousands of Rohingya.

China’s multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to recreate the old Silk Road with massive infrastructure projects connecting China to Europe and beyond, will also see land grabs and huge displacements, PANAP said.

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