Freelance journalist Santosh Yadav, left, with human rights defender Shalini Gera and CPJ India Correspondent Kunal Majumder, during a convention on journalist safety in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, in February 2019. A court on January 2 acquitted Yadav of several charges, ending a four-year legal battle. (CPJ)
Freelance journalist Santosh Yadav, left, with human rights defender Shalini Gera and CPJ India Correspondent Kunal Majumder, during a convention on journalist safety in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, in February 2019. A court on January 2 acquitted Yadav of several charges, ending a four-year legal battle. (CPJ)

‘I feel like a weight has been lifted’ freelance journalist Santosh Yadav says as Chhattisgarh court ends four-year legal nightmare

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On January 2, freelance journalist Santosh Yadav got his life back when the National Investigation Agency court in Jagdalpur acquitted him of charges of helping Maoists militants. The ruling marked the end of a legal nightmare that lasted over four years for Yadav, who says that he was threatened and beaten in custody, before being released on bail under restrictive conditions.

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Yadav’s ordeal started in September 2015, when police in India’s Chhattisgarh state arrested him on accusations of aiding and abetting Maoist militants. The journalist’s colleagues and his lawyer, who spoke with CPJ at the time, said they believed the arrest was in connection to his reporting on alleged human rights abuses by police.

The journalist, who at the time was a contributor to the Hindi-language newspaper Navbharat in Bastar district, was charged with 28 counts including associating with a terrorist organization, supporting and aiding terrorist groups, taking part in a Maoist-led ambush against security forces, rioting with a deadly weapon, unlawful assembly, wrongful restraint, attempt to murder, public mischief and criminal conspiracy. He was held in pre-trial detention for one and a half years.

Yadav told CPJ that during that time, police beat him regularly and threatened to have him killed. When he was released on bail, the court imposed several restrictive measures.

Amit Shandilya, the superintendent for Jagdalpur jail, did not respond to CPJ’s text message requesting comment. CPJ called Kanker jail but a spokesperson declined to comment on the case.

The day after the January 2 ruling that exonerated Yadav, the journalist spoke with CPJ about his struggle during the four years since his arrest.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations. So does this court ruling mean you are a free man?

Yes, all charges have been dropped. The judge said that I’m innocent and have been exonerated of all charges. He added that there is no evidence to prove the police charge that I’m a Maoist.

Prior to your 2015 arrest, had police contacted you about your reporting? Were there any signs or warning that police were unhappy with your journalism?

There were numerous incidents when local police officials would express displeasure over my reporting. I never thought it was anything serious. However, before my arrest, police started picking me up from my home at random hours, once at 3 a.m. They would threaten to arrest me, kill me. They even offered money in exchange for information on Maoists. They would keep me in lock-up the whole day and release me in the evening.

I had a feeling that my life was at threat. I informed several journalists and human rights defenders including Malini Subramaniam [one of CPJ’s 2016 International Press Freedom Awardees], Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal that the police might arrest me.

Your instinct was right. Tell me about your arrest.

On September 29, 2015, I was summoned to the local police station for a meeting, where senior police officer S.R.P. Kalluri was present. He accused me of inciting the general public by writing negative stories about the police. He said that I was not letting government officials do their job and then threatened to kill me in an encounter [extrajudicial killing.]

[Editor’s note: Kulluri did not immediately respond to CPJ’s text message requesting comment.]

I was kept in a police station in Jagdalpur for a few days. My family members were not allowed to meet me. I was declared a high-level Maoist commander. They posted eight policemen to keep an eye on me. At night, they would strip me naked and put me in the lock up.

When I was presented before a judge on October 1, I was told I was accused of extorting money from big corporations on behalf of the Maoist party. I told the court that I had not done anything like that. If I have made any mistakes, I would like to apologize. The judge said that he can’t do anything and I was sent to prison.

Previously, you told CPJ and other outlets that you were beaten and threatened even inside jail. Could you describe your time in prison?

I was beaten repeatedly, especially when I would go for bathing. I even started a protest fast, which several prisoners supported. The prison guards retaliated by beating us with batons. At that point, I didn’t know if I would live or die. After beating me mercilessly, I was stripped and put in solitary confinement for 11 days. Then they moved to me Kanker jail. [Kanker is 122 miles from Yadav’s hometown of Darbha.] Even there I was beaten up. The prison guards singled me out for my protests in the Jagdalpur jail and targeted me.

Meanwhile I was repeatedly denied bail at the lower courts. Finally, in 2017, the Supreme Court granted me bail.

The bail conditions that were imposed were harsh. How did they impact your life?

I had to deposit 20,000 Indian rupees (US$278) as security and I was instructed to appear daily at a local police station. I was also told to inform the local police official about my whereabouts even if I stayed at home. Every day when I went to the police station to sign the register, I wondered, ‘Am I a journalist or a petty criminal? What kind of crime did I commit for which I was under constant surveillance?’

If I was required to travel for reporting, I had to inform the police about the places I travelled. In November 2018, during one of my visits at the police station, I was again threatened by police officials. They tried a lot to rattle me. I became numb. I told them, ‘If you want to kill me, kill me.’

What’s your plan now? Did you go to sign the register today?

I didn’t go to sign the register today. [laughs] I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I hope to resume my work as a journalist like before. This is a huge relief for me. I would like to thank everyone who helped me in this struggle, including CPJ.