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India must end 'inhumane' detention of wheelchair-user activist: UN rights expert

India must end 'inhumane' detention of wheelchair-user activist: UN rights expert
August 21, 2023 Web Desk

GENEVA (AFP) - A United Nations rights expert on Monday slammed India's years-long detention of a rights activist with disabilities as "inhumane", citing grave concerns for his health and demanding his immediate release.

Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, raised the alarm about the nearly decade-long detention of Gokarakonda Naga "GN" Saibaba, a long-standing defender of the rights of minorities in India. 

"India's persistent detention of human rights defender GN Saibaba is an inhumane and senseless act," the independent expert's statement said. "His continued detention is shameful. It bears all the hallmarks of a State seeking to silence a critical voice," she said.

Saibaba, a former English professor at Delhi University who is bound to a wheelchair after suffering from a spinal disorder and polio as a child, was arrested in 2014. He was sentenced to life in prison three years later for multiple offences under India's Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, although various UN rights experts have raised grave concerns about his prosecution, Lawlor pointed out.

She and other UN rights experts are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, but do not speak on behalf of the United Nations. Lawlor pointed out that apart from two short periods on bail, Saibaba had been held in Nagpur Central Jail since his initial arrest, adding that his condition in prison "is a matter of serious concern". 

"Mr. Saibaba has been detained in a high security 'anda barracks' in conditions incompatible with his status as a wheelchair user," she said. She highlighted that his small cell had no window and a wall made of iron bars, "exposing him to extreme weather, especially in the scorching summer heat."

Lawlor, who said she was in contact with the Indian government regarding the case, stressed that countries have an obligation to uphold prisoners' right to health and dignity. "Prison authorities must ensure that prisoners with disabilities are not discriminated against, including by ensuring accessibility and providing reasonable accommodation," she said.

The expert warned that Saibaba's health "has severely deteriorated in detention." "He should be released."