Police recently arrested journalist Sharjeel Usmani in Uttar Pradesh, allegedly over his involvement in 2019 protests. (Photo: Usmani family)

Indian police arrest journalist Sharjeel Usmani in Uttar Pradesh

New Delhi, July 15, 2020 — Uttar Pradesh authorities must immediately release Sharjeel Usmani and drop any charges filed against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On July 8, anti-terror police officers in Azamgarh, a city in Uttar Pradesh state, arrested Usmani, a freelance reporter and writer at the news collective Maktoob, while he was visiting a relative, according to news reports and Tariq Usmani, the journalist’s father, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.

Police alleged that Usmani incited violent protests at Aligarh Muslim University on December 15, 2019, against the Citizenship Amendment Act, a bill passed in late 2019 that critics alleged discriminated against Muslims, according to news reports. According to police complaints reviewed by CPJ, authorities are investigating Usmani for rioting, criminal intimidation, hurting a public servant, and disobeying a public servant.

On July 9, the local magistrate in Aligarh ordered Usmani to be held in judicial custody for 15 days, and denied him immediate legal representation, Tariq Usmani said.

Tariq Usmani said he believes his son was arrested in retaliation for his recent critical articles about tensions between Muslims and the police in Uttar Pradesh.

According to news reports, authorities have formally filed charges against Usmani. However, authorities have not told the journalist’s family what specific charges have been filed, Tariq Usmani said.

“Authorities must immediately release journalist Sharjeel Usmani, disclose any charges against him, and drop any charges in retaliation for his journalism,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher, in New York. “The secretive manner in which Usmani was arrested, and lack of information about why he has been detained amid a pandemic, cast a further shadow over press freedom in Uttar Pradesh.”

If charged and convicted of rioting, the journalist could face up to three years in jail and a fine set by a judge; if convicted of criminal intimidation, he could face up to two years in jail and a fine, according to the Indian penal code.

Tariq Usmani said his son peacefully participated in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, but was not involved in any violence.

Shaheen Abdulla, another journalist at Maktoob, told CPJ via phone that a recent article by Usmani defending one of the participants in the December protests had sparked harsh criticism and threats online from supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Since May, the right-wing OpIndia website ran several articles demanding action against Usmani over his critical articles and his activism against the Citizenship Amendment Act, Maktoob editor Aslah Kayyalakkath told CPJ.

According to Kayyalakkath, Usmani is responsible for news coverage of Uttar Pradesh at Maktoob and also published his writing in other news websites such as Firstpost, Newslaundry, and DailyO.

Tariq Usmani said that he has been unable to petition for his son’s bail as courts in Uttar Pradesh are closed due to the COVID-19 lockdown, and said he is worried about Usmani’s health in detention.

Preetinder Singh, deputy inspector-general of police for Aligarh, did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment via messaging app.

CPJ has documented growing numbers of press freedom violations in Uttar Pradesh in recent months. In June, the police in Varanasi launched an investigation on Scroll.in journalist Supriya Sharma over her stories on COVID-19, and journalist Shubham Mani Tripathi was shot dead in Unnao.