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Chhattisgarh Authorities must investigate attack on Soni Sori, Ensure safety of her family: Amnesty India

February 24, 2016 | By

Chhattisgarh: An attack on Adivasi activist Soni Sori is the latest in a series of attempts to suppress human rights defenders in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, Amnesty International India said today.
On the night of 20 February, Soni Sori, a former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, was travelling on a motorcycle with a colleague from Jagdalpur to her home in Geedam, Chhattisgarh, when three unidentified men on a motorcycle stopped them and threw a black substance on Soni Sori’s face. The activist said later that the substance caused an intense burning sensation, temporarily blinding her. She was taken to a hospital in Jagdalpur, and shifted this morning to another hospital in Raipur, the state capital. Her condition is stable. An official at the Jagdalpur hospital said that the substance has been sent to a forensic lab to be identified.

“Soni Sori spent years in detention on politically motivated charges because of her activism, and it is appalling that she continues to be targeted simply for fighting for justice for Adivasi communities,” said Tara Rao, Programmes Director at Amnesty International India. “Along with the continuing intimidation of journalists and lawyers defending human rights in the region, this attack marks a sinister turn of events in Bastar.”

The state police have registered a First Information Report against unnamed persons for offences including wrongful restraint, voluntarily causing hurt and criminal intimidation.
Soni Sori has been trying for weeks to file a complaint against a high-ranking police official in Bastar in a case involving an alleged extrajudicial execution in Mardum. In July 2015, the official had allegedly called for the ‘social exclusion’ of Soni Sori and her nephew, Lingaram Kodopi. Soni Sori told Amnesty International India that her attackers on 20 February had warned her not to continue her efforts.

“The people who attacked me told me to not go against the official and even threatened to attack my daughter,” she said.

The activist said that she had received a telephone call on the evening of 20 February telling her about a potential attack. Shivani Taneja, a local activist, said she had tried to inform police officials about the threat. “I tried to reach the Superintendent of Police and District Magistrate of Dantewada district on the landlines and their mobile numbers to ask for protection, but no one responded to the calls”, she said. The Superintendent of Police, Dantewada, denied receiving any calls during this time.

Human rights defenders in the region have been subjected to relentless harassment and intimidation in recent weeks. On 7 February, a group of over 20 people demonstrated outside the house of Malini Subramaniam, a freelance journalist, and chanted slogans suggesting that she was an agent for Maoist armed groups. Stones were later thrown at her house, and an anti-Maoist group with links to the state police accused her in a press statement of promoting Maoist ideology. Her landlord asked her to move out of her home in Jagdalpur on 18 February, after he was called in for questioning by the state police.

The same day, human rights lawyers Isha Khandelwal and Shalini Gera, who provide free legal assistance to Adivasi prisoners in the region, were asked to leave their home and office in similar circumstances. Senior police officials in the state have informally accused the lawyers of being Maoist sympathisers in the past, and the local bar association has attempted to prevent them from carrying out their work.  Bela Bhatia, another journalist working in the region, also told Amnesty International India that her landlord has been called in for questioning by the police.

The Inspector General of Police, Bastar Range, dismissed concerns about the state police pressuring landlords to evict human rights defenders in the region. He told Amnesty International India, “This is based on your perception”.

“The Chhattisgarh government must ensure the safety of Soni Sori and other human rights defenders in Bastar, and conduct thorough and independent investigations into attacks and threats against them,” said Tara Rao.

“Anyone attempting to intimidate activists into silent submission or cover up human rights violations must be brought to book.”

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