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India: Government increases use of travel restrictions in ongoing crackdown on free expression

Thursday 7 April 2022 - 1:46pm

Aakar Patel And Rana Ayyub

Update - 8 April 2022

On 8 April 2022, the Delhi Court provided interim relief to the CBI which had sought to appeal the court's order that it withdraw the LOC against Aakar Patel, which effectively reinstates Patel's travel ban and prevents his travel to the US.

PEN International continues its call on the Indian government to immediately end its harassment Aakar Patel and others who are targeted for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.

PEN International has received reports that Indian authorities attempted to arbitrarily prevent writer and human rights activist, Aakar Patel, from travelling to the US, infringing on his right to freedom of expression and movement. This concerning development is the latest example of the arbitrary use of travel restrictions against writers, journalists and activists who have criticised the Indian government.

On 6 April 2022, Aakar Patel was due to fly from India to the US where he was scheduled to speak at several academic conferences on topics including attacks on civil society in India and the use of social media as a tool for social and political change. However, when he attempted to board his flight at Bangalore airport, immigration authorities blocked his travel, citing a look-out circular (LOC) issued by the government’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). On 7 April, a Delhi Court intervened, ordering the CBI to withdraw the LOC against Patel, enabling him to travel unimpeded.

‘The Indian government’s efforts to impede Patel and Ayyub’s ability to travel and speak about issues of public interest is a deeply problematic act of censorship that undermines the free exchange of ideas from which all societies benefit. The Indian authorities must end their practice of routinely targeting writers, journalists and other public intellectuals for peacefully calling for human rights, justice and accountability – values that are in the interest of any democracy’, said Ma Thida, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

While the CBI initially refused to publicly comment further on the reason why it initially attempted to restrict Patel’s travel outside of India, he was informed by the CBI that the LOC emanates from another ongoing litigation against him in relation to his roles as former head and current Chair of the Board of Amnesty International India. The human rights organisation was forced to cease its operations in September 2020 following a campaign of intimidation orchestrated by the Indian government that included multiple raids, a smear campaign, and the Amnesty International India’s bank accounts being frozen.

In addition to his committed work in support of human rights, Patel is also an author and journalist. His most recent book, Price of the Modi Years, was published in 2021 and provides a critical examination of the performance of the Indian government since Narendra Modi’s election as prime minister in 2014. In 2020, he published Our Hindu Rashtra, which charts the rise of Hindu majoritarian nationalism in India and how it has accelerated under Modi’s government.

The CBI’s attempt to prevent Patel’s travel to the US takes place just one week after fellow author and investigative journalist, Rana Ayyub, was temporarily prevented from travelling to Europe where she was due to give speeches on the intimidation of journalists and the current state of Indian democracy. Six days after the LOC was issued, the Delhi High Court quashed the restriction, permitting her travel with strict conditions, including that she share her travel itinerary and contact details with the government agencies that are targeting her.

In Ayyub’s case, the LOC issued against her is part of ongoing targeted campaign against her, which has resulted in death threats, trumped up charges, and other forms of judicial harassment.

The increased use of travel restrictions by government agencies against writers, journalists and human rights activists is the latest example of the Indian government’s ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression across the country. Numerous others remain in detention, including Hany Babu and Anand Teltumbde. Poet Varavara Rao remains on trial while on medical bail and faces a potential death sentence if convicted.

PEN International calls on the Indian government to immediately end its targeted harassment of writers, journalists, and government critics, and to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners held for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.

For further information please contact Ross Holder, Asia Programme Coordinator at PEN International, Unit A, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email: ross.holder@pen-international.org