UAPA – A law against liberty

From The Indian Express:

The Lok Sabha has quietly amended the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, a dangerous tool in the hands of any government

[PUDR's critique of UAPA from April this year, before the recent amendments, is available here. -ed]

When two young women were arrested for a Facebook post questioning the shutdown in Mumbai for Bal Thackeray’s funeral, middle-class fury forced the Maharashtra government to drop the case and suspend two police officers.The Centre also issued a set of guidelines to avoid misuse of the controversial Section 66A of the Information Technology Act. However, even as calls for repeal of the “vague” and “wide” provisions of the IT law that are “susceptible to wanton abuse” grew louder, the government silently pushed through much more controversial amendments to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in the Lok Sabha, making it further mirror previous draconian laws like POTA and TADA.

The amendments did not merely make this law more stringent; they have made law enforcement agencies less accountable, despite substantial proof of misuse. The government had, in fact, brought in several amendments to give “anti-terror teeth” to the UAPA coinciding with the repeal of POTA in 2004, and more stringent amendments were pushed through in the backdrop of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

The vast scope for the misuse of the amendments to the UAPA has been articulated in the recent citizens’ appeal to members of the Rajya Sabha, issued by the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association (JTSA), which has been endorsed by several senior civil rights groups, scholars and activists. The appeal has questioned five aspects of the amended law.

The broad definition of person, especially as “an association of persons or a body of individuals, whether incorporated or not” is open to misuse because “this will actually allow agencies and government to create persons beyond that what are recognised by law and any group of friends/ acquaintances can be labelled an association of persons or a body of individuals by the agencies and the government” like a “book reading club to friends who meet every evening at a dhaba may be deemed to be an association of persons or a body of individuals”.

Another major amendment to the law has been to include economic offences within the larger definition of a “terrorist act”. There are two aspects of this amendment that have raised questions. The criminalisation of “production, distribution of high-quality counterfeit currency” is “repetitive” and are already “covered by the equivalent sections 489B, 489C, 489D in the IPC”. The civil rights activists question this amendment, arguing that “when comparable provisions in IPC and terror laws are available for same crimes, the police exercise the option of booking an accused under the terror law because it affords them greater leverage: bail provisions are much more stringent and the accused can be kept in custody for long periods (up to 180 days) without the filing of a chargesheet”.

Another amendment broadens the scope of action against fund raising for “terror activities”. Now, the raising of funds likely to be used (in full or in part) to commit a terrorist act or for the benefit of terrorists shall be punishable irrespective of whether the funds have been raised from legitimate or illegitimate sources. This is irrespective of whether such funds were actually used to commit a terror act or not. And it is punishable for a term not less than five years, but extendable to life.

The only safeguard is the condition that the accused should know that “such funds are likely to be used… by a terrorist organisation”. The civil rights activists apprehend that this amendment will “practically bring under the possibility of prosecution all transactions, even perfectly legitimate ones, without any remote connection to a terrorist act” because “all that the prosecution needs to show is that the accused had knowledge that such funds could be likely used for terrorist act. While such subjective knowledge may again be difficult to prove, it will no doubt result in the incarceration of accused for long periods without bail”.

While the introduction of several new changes has already made the UAPA exceptionally harsh, the amendment of Section 6 of the law has taken away the little hope for judicial scrutiny to prevent its misuse.

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