Reporter Assaulted in Assam for Exposing Corruption in Government

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A local newspaper reporter was severely assaulted in Cachar district of Assam state in North East India while he was returning home after collecting information, and taking photographs, of alleged irregularities in works under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (NREGA) in Borkhola development block area.

The victim was severely beaten up that caused serious injuries including breaking of his teeth. The incident happened at a place a little away from a work site at Sonapur Gaon Panchayat (GP) on 28 February 2012 allegedly by workers of a political party. Although the police registered a case against the attackers, instead of investigating the case, they registered another false case against the victim allegedly due to political interference. The victim is still traumatized and can not go out for work for fear of loss of limbs and life.

The BHRPC received a written communication from the victim Mr Sibir Ahmed Barbhuiyan on 7 April 2012 giving details of the incident and other relevant information. Mr Barbhuiyan is aged about 34, son of late Basarat Ali Barbhuiya and a resident of village Chandpur Part-III under the jurisdiction of Borkhola police station (PS) in Cachar. He is presently working as a local correspondent with the Dainik Jugasankha, a local daily news paper published from Baidyanath Sarani, Rongpur, Silchar-9. He also does a part time job as an insurance agent with the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC). It is also stated that Mr Barbhuiya also works as the president of a village level non-government organization named Borkhola Gram Bikash Parishad that aims to work for equitable and sustainable development of the villages in Borkhola block particularly by ensuring proper implementation of the government rural development schemes. It is registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860 vide No. RS/CA/243/G/32. However, the BHRPC could not thoroughly inquire into the works and activities of the NGO and its members.

According to the information provided by the victim, on 28 February he went out for works in the morning as usual. After the day’s work when he was returning home at about 9 pm some job card holders under the NREGA informed him that the GP president (elected head of the village level local government body) Ms Nazima Begum Laskar and its secretary Mr Shew Kumar Pandey caused deployment of Excavator and Tripper machines for soil excavation at the construction work of a village road from Dispur to Ashrab Shah Mukam in Sonapur GP and that the machines were at work at the time.

The work was sanctioned under the NREGA which is an Act of parliament of India enacted to enhance livelihood security in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. The use of machines in such works defeats the very purpose of the legislation. The operational guidelines for implementation of the law issued by the Ministry of Rural Development, the nodal ministry of the government of India for implementation of the Act, also categorically say that no contractors and machinery is allowed and a 60:40 wage and material ratio has to be maintained. Therefore, Mr Barbhuiya felt he was duty bound as a working journalist and social worker to capture the evidence of violations of law in camera. Accordingly he went to the work site immediately and shot some photographs.

According to the information, after taking photographs when he reached Ashrab Shah Mukam a group of about 12 people led by one Liakat Ali Barbhuiya attacked him. Some of the attackers were identified by him as (1) Liakat Ali Barbhuiya, son of late Mujibur Rahman, (2) Abdul Mannan, (3) Jelu Mazumder, son of Gousul Mazumder, (4) Gousul Mazumder, (5) Anor Uddin, (6) Manjurul Haque, son of Nur Uddin, (7) Babul Ahmed, son of late Mujibur Rahman and other 4/5 unidentified persons. All of them are residents of village Sonapur under Borkhola police station and local workers of the congress party, the ruling political party in Assam. The victim stated that the attackers started beating him and continued to box and punch him till they broke one of his teeth and he fell unconscious. The victim alleged that the attackers then took away all his belongings including a camera (canon 14:4), a gold ring (4 Ana), two mobile handsets (Nokia 3110) with SIMs bearing numbers 9401311524 and 9854901235, one HMT wrist watch and Rs. 33,000.00 (thirty three thousand) cash of insurance premium that he collected that day and some important documents etc.

The victim further stated that when his senses returned he found himself confined in a nearby house belonging to one of the alleged attackers Gousul Mazumder and he sensed that they were preparing weapons to kill him. At this point in time the officer In-Charge (IC) of Bhangarpar police outpost Mr Robin Hazarika reached the spot who rushed after receiving information about the incident and rescued the victim but did not nab the attackers and recover the stolen stuffs and thus they fled away at his arrival. Mr Barbhuiya was then taken to a local hospital and later shifted to the Silchar Medical College and Hospital, Silchar (SMCH) where he was admitted in the surgery department and received treatment until he was released on 5 March.

The police officer told the victim that he needed to visit the police outpost in order that his complaint was registered while the victim was in severe need of urgent medical attention. Mr barbhuiya could not visit the outpost that night as he was at the Sonapur primary health centre (PHC). However, he managed to file a written complaint on 29 February at the Bhangarpar outpost. Still the police did not register the case promptly, let alone taking any actions. When the health condition of the victim deteriorated and he had to be rushed to the SMCH on 1 March and the police was repeatedly urged to take actions the Borkhola PS registered a case against the alleged attackers vide Borkhola PS Case No. 29/12 dated 1 March 2012 under sections 341, 326, 506, 379 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) for wrongful restraint, grievous hurt, criminal intimidation, theft and joint commission of the offences respectively. Sub-inspector of police Mr Robin Hazarika has been made the investigation officer (I/O) of the case.

Mr. Barbhuiya, however, alleged that even after registration of the case the I/O did not take any actions against the accused and investigation of the case did not proceed at all. No statements of the witnesses recorded. No stolen goods recovered. No arrest of the accused was made though they were roaming free. It is alleged that the police facilitated grant of pre-arrest bail of the accused persons from the Gauhati High Court by sending a biased and false report of the case to the court without investigations. After being repeatedly urged to take actions as per law, the officer told that he could not take any actions as he was asked by Dr Rumee Nath, the member of Assam legislative assembly (MLA) belonging to the ruling congress party and representing Borkhola constituency, not to take actions, the victim alleged in his written communication addressed to the BHRPC.

The victim further alleged that he believed that the attack on him was carried out at the behest of the MLA who wanted him to be killed because as a scribe he reported at different times stories containing allegations of corruption made by the people against her. He also mentioned that foundation stone of the particular NREGA work where he found violations of laws was laid by her and the local monitoring body is comprised of party workers loyal to her including the GP president and Liakat Ali Barbhuiya and some other attackers. However, when the BHRPC contacted Ms Nath for her side of the story she did not respond.

It is also alleged that under political influence the police registered a false case against the victim based on a complaint filed by one Ms Champarun Nessa (aged about 45 years) of village Sonapur Part-I vide Borkhola P.S. Case No. 30/12 under sections 341, 354, 376 and 311 of IPC on 1 March 2012. The sections invoked provide punishment for wrongful restraint, assault or criminal force on woman to outrage her modesty and rape. Although the case involves serious offence of rape the self-proclaimed rape victim was not medically examined and her statement was also not recorded by a judicial magistrate. The BHRPC believes that this case against Mr Barbhuiya is absolutely false and malicious filed with malafide intention of abusing the legal process to subvert the object of law, to weaken the case against the alleged attackers of Mr Barbhuiya, to harass and intimidate him. It goes against reasons and common sense that a person who sustained injuries amounting to grievous hurt within the meaning of section 326 of the IPC would be able to commit offence like rape soon thereafter. In fact, it has become a practice for unscrupulous influential persons to procure some complainants and cause registration of serious offences against human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists.

In view of the position and intent of the people against him and the negligence of the police in their duties and their abetment in harassing and intimidating the victim, he is apprehensive of more attacks and seriously concerned for his life and limbs and police harassment as well as for those of his family members and members of the Borkhola Gram Bikash Parishad. He said he always feels that his life and liberty is at risk as the alleged perpetrators are at large and consequently he could freely move and work.

The rights:

The BHRPC thinks that the information reveals a prima facie case of violations of fundamental rights of the victim to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 (1) (a), the right to practice profession of one’s choice guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (g) and the right to security and physical and psychological integrity under Article 21 of the constitution of India as read by the Supreme Court of India. The non-investigation of his case by the police also entails violations right to truth, justice and reparation.

It is also a prima facie case of violations of human right ‘to freedom of opinion and expression’ as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. The rights violated in this case are also guaranteed in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 to which India is a state party. This covenant including this Article is a part of the Human Rights Protection Act, 1993 by virtue of section 2 (1) (d).

It is obvious that the attack was carried out, if not to kill him, to take away the sense of security under which comfort Mr Barbhuiya works legitimately and peacefully both as a journalist and president of the Borkhola Gram Bikash Parishad against corruption and irregularities in implementation of rural development scheme of the government for practical realization of the rights of the people, particularly their social and economic rights. These circumstances make the definition of human rights defender as understood in the context of the United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (also known as the declaration on human rights defenders) applicable in the case.

Human rights works including socio-economic and cultural rights by peaceful and legitimate means are both duty and rights of every individual as spelt out in the declaration on human rights defenders. Particularly Article 12 of the declaration imposes duty on the State to “take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or dejure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present declaration.”

The Protection of Human Rights Act also mandates the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to inquire, *suo motu* or on a petition presented to it by a victim or any person on his behalf, into complaint of (i) violation of human rights or abetment thereof or (ii) negligence in the prevention of such violation, by a public servant under section (a) 12. It is also the mandate of the NHRC to encourage the efforts of non-governmental organisations and institutions working in the field of human rights under clause (i) of the same section, which includes protection of defenders.

The actions:

In view of the circumstances the BHRPC wrote to the authorities including the prime minister of India, the chief minister of Assam, the president of the All India Congress Committee and the chairperson of the Press Council of India and also filed a complaint at the NHRC urging them to cause the relevant authorities:

1. to conduct a prompt, objective and exhaustive investigation into the alleged assault on Mr Sibir Ahmed Barbhuiya, failure of police to perform their legal duties in investigating the allegations and the role of MLA Dr Rumee Nath in the alleged violations of human rights;

2. to take all necessary measures to protect the physical and psychological security and integrity of Mr Sibir Ahmed Barbhuiya and his family and all members of Borkhola Gram Bikash Parishad and their families;

3. to provide adequate reparation in terms of monetary compensation to Mr Sibir Ahmed Barbhuiya for loss of his equipments, documents and other valuables and for suffering physical and mental agony;

4. to guarantee that human rights defenders in Assam are able to carry out their legitimate human rights works without fear of reprisals, and free of all restrictions including assault by goons and police harassment;

5. to guarantee that citizens and particularly the journalists in Assam are able to exercise their right to freedom of thought and expression without fear of reprisals, and free of all restrictions including assault by goons and police harassment.

Waliullah Ahmed Laskar is an Independent Journalist and Human Rights Defender, and Director of Law and Legal Affairs at Barak Human Rights Protection Committee in Guwahati, Assam.