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A glimmer of hope for human rights in South Asia

A cursory look at the human rights situation in South Asia can make one feel that the arc of the moral universe in the region has been too long and does not seem to lean towards justice. And yet, as people committed to human rights, we cannot allow pessimism to be our defining narrative. We must keep hope close to our hearts in terrain that is so hostile to human rights work.

Indeed, while 2022 has seen a host of human rights violations in South Asia, there have also been positive developments that should be recognized and celebrated.

The use of draconian anti-terrorism laws in the region to imprison and silence activists, journalists and just about anyone who dares speak out against injustice has become an easy model to replicate across the region. But our collective fight for freedom and justice secured the freedom of at least some of those critical voices.

In Sri Lanka, the authorities have been using 1979 legislation called the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to intimidate critics. But in February, after spending nearly two years in pretrial detention, Hejaaz Hizbullah, a Sri Lankan lawyer and minority rights advocate who was detained under the PTA, was released on bail. In August, Mohamed Imran, a computer engineering student, was released after a long and unfair detention under the PTA law; a month later, Divaniya Mukunthan, the director of a Tamil YouTube channel, was also fired.

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During anti-government protests earlier this year, the Sri Lankan government once again used this draconian legislation to stifle dissent, along with excessive force and mass arrests. But after deciding not to renew the state of emergency imposed by the riots, the authorities also released most of the protesters who were arbitrarily detained. Galwewa student leader Siridhamma Thero, who was arrested by the PTA, was released on bail earlier this month.

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In India, authorities have been using the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) to keep activists in jail without trial. But there were at least two cases this year with positive developments. Poet and radical thinker Varavara Rao, who was detained under the UAPA in 2018, has been granted bail by the Supreme Court. Prominent intellectual and academic Anand Teltumbde, who was arrested in 2020 also on UAPA charges, has also been released on bail.

Another encouraging development came from India’s Supreme Court after it suspended the country’s colonial-era sedition law in May, which has also been used to suppress dissent. This was a big step in the right direction, particularly for the protection of free speech. The court also approved landmark orders affirming the right of sex workers to a dignified life and the right to abortion for all pregnant women up to the 24th week, regardless of marital status.

While the Indian judiciary has sometimes failed to stand up for human rights in recent years, these developments make me think that all is not lost. They also give me hope that the Indian courts can also step up and uphold the rights, particularly those of persecuted minorities.

The persecution of minorities has been a mainstream trend across the region, not just in India. In Pakistan, blasphemy laws have contributed to violence against ethnic and religious groups and several deaths were reported. However, in a positive move, the Supreme Court of Pakistan urged the authorities to ensure due process in the administration of justice in relation to blasphemy cases. This, of course, is not enough and such legislation must be completely abolished.

In the Maldives, which also has strict blasphemy laws, activist Mohamed Rusthum Mujuthaba was arrested for posting religiously critical content on social media and for possession of “obscene material.” He was released in August and released from further imprisonment.

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In Bangladesh, teenager Dipti Rani Das, who was arrested for “hurting religious feelings”, has been released after spending 16 months in detention.

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There have also been modest gains for women’s rights in the region. In Nepal, activists won reforms to strengthen the rights of survivors of gender-based violence. As a result of his campaign, the government extended the restrictive statute of limitations on rape and other forms of sexual violence from one year to a maximum of three years. This is a small victory and we must continue to advocate until the statute of limitations is lifted.

Afghanistan has seen perhaps the most daunting human rights crisis in the region. A year of Taliban rule has been marked by gender persecution of the worst kind, as well as persecution of minorities, including torture and enforced disappearances of Hazaras and people associated with the former Afghan government.

But sometimes even the Taliban have given up after people stood up for justice. Professor Faizullah Jalal, a prominent leader and university professor in Afghanistan, has been released after being detained for pointing out the inability of the Taliban to address the humanitarian catastrophe in the country. His release came after months of campaigning by Amnesty International and many others.

Another positive development occurred in October, when the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that investigations into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the armed conflict in Afghanistan would resume. This has restored some hope in the long-awaited justice. The ICC Prosecutor must now seize this opportunity to urgently launch investigations into all parties to the conflict and ensure justice and reparation for the victims of these heinous crimes.

While there has been no shortage of human rights violations in large swaths of South Asia in 2022, and as widespread repression persists, there is definitely a light that continues to shine.

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It burns in every Afghan woman who continues to protest and claim her space in what is probably one of the most hostile environments for women. It burns in Bilkis Bano, who continues to demand justice for the 2002 Gujarat riots and fights against the premature release of her rapists in India. It burns on activist Shahnewaz Chowdhury, who faces prison in Bangladesh for speaking out about pollution and deaths at a coal plant. It burns on the resilience that the protesters in Sri Lanka have shown to demand a better future for themselves and their country.

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South Asia has a history of strong movements of people fighting injustice, so let’s celebrate them and support them in their quest to guarantee human rights for all. Let’s keep the candle of human rights burning.

As the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness.”

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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