Prominent international figures support appeal for release of human rights defenders as India faces Covid emergency

(Last updated 17 June 2021)



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10 June 2021


We urge the immediate release of human rights defenders in India into safe conditions

Accounting for almost a third of deaths from Covid-19 worldwide, the situation in India is grave. We are alarmed that a number of human rights defenders who are currently awaiting trial in Indian jails have developed serious health issues in jail owing to over-congestion and neglect, absence of appropriate medical care, and deplorable hygiene conditions. These political prisoners are now at great risk of contracting the virulent strain of the virus -- which some have already contracted --  and will have no access to prompt medical care that is necessary to save lives. We therefore urgently seek that the temporary administrative order to release prisoners due to the pandemic be applied to political prisoners in India. We strongly believe that by turning a blind eye to the toll exacted by Covid on those it holds in its custody, the government is in violation of its constitutional duty to safeguard the life of these citizens.   


Among the thousands in India arrested for “political offences” is a group known as the Bhima-Koregaon (BK)-16:  four academics, three lawyers, two independent journalists, a union organizer and social activist, a poet, three performing artists, and a Jesuit priest. A majority of them are senior citizens, some of whom have comorbidities that render them particularly vulnerable. All are human rights defenders with a record of writing, speaking and organizing for the rights of workers, minorities, Dalits, and Adivasis through peaceful and constitutional means. As the deadly second wave of Covid rages, with an equally serious third wave anticipated, the overcrowded prisons face severe water shortage and lack the medical equipment and personnel necessary to fight Covid. At least six of the arrested have contracted Covid-19, others have reported various acute infections and a rapid deterioration of health. Two of the BK-16 were recently shifted to multi-specialty hospitals after intense advocacy from family members and concerned citizens. Last year, one of the 16, an 80-year old poet, received temporary bail on medical grounds after weeks of hospitalization, at a moment when it was feared that he may die in custody. 


In a moment of unprecedented national calamity, we ask for decisive action by the government and court to set the BK-16 at liberty to avert further tragedy. When the prison is unable to provide for the health and safety of the prisoners, the family has a right to offer such care as they deem necessary. None of the prisoners is deemed a flight risk. We acknowledge that while the Bombay High Court allowed three of the 16 arrested to be transferred to private hospitals, there is a humanitarian emergency facing all these political prisoners, whose lives are in grave danger from Covid-19. 


With this letter, we call on the Indian authorities to take urgent and prompt action:

Release the BK-16 from overcrowded and unsafe prisons immediately.

Allow them to be cared for by their kin.

Show compassion and responsibility in order to avoid catastrophic consequences.

Ensure them their constitutional right to live and die in dignity.


  1. José Antonio Guevara-Bermúdez, Former President of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention

  2. Olga Tokarczuk, Polish writer, Nobel Prize for Literature 2018 

  3. Wole Soyinka, Nigerian writer, Nobel Prize for Literature 1986 

  4. Margrete Auken, Member of the European Parliament

  5. Idoia Villanueva, Member of the European Parliament

  6. Alviina Alametsä, Member of the European Parliament

  7. Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Member of the House of Lords, UK

  8. Caroline Lucas, Member of Parliament, UK

  9. Apsana Begum, Member of Parliament, UK

  10. Clive Lewis, Member of Parliament, UK

  11. Mick Barry, TD, Member of the Irish Parliament

  12. Michel Brandt, Member of the German Bundestag

  13. Eva-Maria Schreiber, Member of the German Bundestag

  14. Heike Hänsel, Member of the German Bundestag and Vice-President of Left Parliamentary Group, Germany

  15. Christine Buchholz, Member of the German Bundestag and deputy member of the Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid

  16. Mattea Meyer, Member of the Swiss Parliament

  17. Cédric Wermuth, Member of the Swiss Parliament

  18. Fabian Molina, Member of the Swiss Parliament

  19. Tamara Funiciello, Member of the Swiss Parliament

  20. Pierre Yves-Maillard, Member of Swiss Parliament, President of the Swiss Trade Union Federation 

  21. Katharina Prelicz-Huber, Member of Swiss Parliament, President of the Swiss trade union VPOD-SSP

  22. (Rt Revd Dr) Rowan Williams FBA, Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Former Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge

  23. Revd Ted Penton, SJ, Secretary of Justice and Ecology,  Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States

  24. Vania Alleva, President of the Swiss trade union Unia

  25. Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA

  26. Homi K. Bhabha, Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University, USA

  27. James Silk, Binger Clinical Professor of Human Rights, Yale Law School, USA 

  28. Gyan Prakash, Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, Princeton University, USA

  29. Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, University of California at Berkeley, USA

  30. Signe Kjelstrup, Principle Investigator, Center of Excellence, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Norway

  31. Arjun Appadurai, Paulette Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University, USA

  32. Faisal Devji, Professor of Indian History, University of Oxford, UK

  33. Talal Asad, Distinguished Professor, City University of New York, USA

  34. Gyanendra Pandey, Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor, and Director, Interdisciplinary Workshop on Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, Emory University, USA

  35. Victor Wallis, Professor, Berklee College of Music, USA

  36. Michael Morris, Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership Management, Columbia University, USA

  37. Ashutosh Varshney, Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences, Brown University, USA

  38. Ash Amin, Professor of Geography, University of Cambridge, UK

  39. Partha Chatterjee, Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University, USA

  40. Akeel Bilgrami, Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy, Professor, Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University, USA

  41. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, University Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University, USA 

  42. Maryse Condé, French-Guadeloupean novelist and laureate, Professor Emerita, Columbia University, USA 

  43. Paula M. L. Moya, Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell Professor of the Humanities, Stanford University, USA

  44. Ueli Maeder, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Former Dean at the University of Basel, Germany

  45. Joshua Castellino, Executive Director, Minority Rights International and Professor of Law, Middlesex University, London

  46. Wolfgang Kaleck, Lawyer and Author, Berlin, Germany

  47. Alan Rusbridger, Former Editor-in-Chief, the Guardian UK and  board member, Committee to Protect Journalists

  48. Naomi Klein, Journalist, Author, Filmmaker, Activist, and Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies, Rutgers University, USA

  49. Vince Warren, Lawyer, New York, USA

  50. Jennifer Robinson, Barrister, UK

  51. Alejandra Anchieta, Founder and Executive Director, ProDESC, Mexico 

  52. Sarah Ahmed, British-Australian Writer and Independent Scholar 

  53. Srećko Horvat, Philosopher and Council Member, Progressive International

  54. Sir Anish Kapoor, Artist, UK

  55. Ilija Trojanow, Bulgarian-German Writer 

  56. Amit Chaudhuri, Novelist, Essayist, and Musician 

  57. Shahidul Alam, Photographer, Writer, Curator and Human Rights Activist 

  58. Ahdaf Soueif, Novelist, Political and Cultural Commentator

Endorsing organizations

  1. InSAF India (International Solidarity for Academic Freedom in India)

  2. India Civil Watch International (ICWI)

  3. The Sikh Press Association

  4. PEN Canada

  5. English PEN

  6. PEN International

  7. American Sociological Association

  8. Hindus for Human Rights

  9. Global Secular Hindu Forum 

  10. Solifonds Switzerland 

  11. American Anthropological Association

  12. The Society for Cinema and Media Studies


Further reading


The Hon’ble Chief Justice of India,

Justice N.V. Ramana,

Supreme Court of India,

Tilak Marg, New Delhi 110001


The Hon’ble Chief Justice,

Justice Dipankar Datta,

105 Bombay High Court,

(P.W.D.) Building, Fort, Mumbai 400032


The Hon’ble Justice A.A.Sayed,

Member of the High Power Committee,

105 Bombay High Court,

(P.W.D.) Building, Fort, Mumbai 400032


The Hon’ble Prime Minister of India,

Mr Narendra Modi,

Prime Minister Office,

South Block, Raisina Hill, New Delhi 110011


The Hon’ble Home Minister of India,

Mr Amit Shah,

Ministry of Home Affairs,

North Block, Raisina Hill, New Delhi 100011


The Hon’ble Chief Minister of Maharashtra,

Mr Uddhav Thackeray,

Maharashtra CM Office,

Government of Maharashtra,

6th Floor, Mantralaya, Nariman Point, Mumbai 400032


The Hon’ble Home Minister of Maharashtra,

Mr Dilip Dattaray Walse-Patil,

Mantralaya, Nariman Point, Mumbai 400032


Mr Anand Limaye,

Additional Chief Secretary, Home (Appeal and Security),

Member of the High Power Committee,

Home Department, Mantralaya, Nariman Point, Mumbai 400032


Shri Sunil Ramanand,

Additional Director General of Police (Prisons),

Member of the High Power Committee,

OId Central Building, 2nd Floor, Pune-1

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Mr Nils Menzer,
Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights)

Ms Leigh Toomey,
Chair-Rapporteur, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention

Ms Dunja Mijatovic,
EU Commissioner for Human Rights

Ms Mary Lawlor,
Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders,
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights)

Mr Gerard Quinn,
Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities,
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights)

Ms Irene Khan,
UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights)

Ms Rosa Kornfeld-Matte,
Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights)

Ms Tlaleng Mofokeng,
Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights)

The Sikh Press Association was erroneously mentioned as Sikh Council UK in the first publication of the letter. It has been corrected. We sincerely apologise for this inadvertent and egregious error and for any inconvenience caused.
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