Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is appalled by the denial of justice in the case of a TV reporter in the state of Punjab, in northwestern India, who was tortured and then jailed for a month after questioning a lawyer’s qualifications. Now he and his cameraman are facing up to 22 years in prison in case brought by lawyers and, to cap it all, they cannot find a lawyer to defend them.
Khush Dil News TV reporter Sunil Kumar Sain’s account of what happened after he was arrested on 26 June and taken to the Fazilka district police station is shocking: “I was hung upside down for two days while they threw scalding water on me every two hours and gave me nothing to eat or drink the whole time.”
After the two days of torture, he was taken to a prison in the nearby city of Bathinda and held there for a month, until released on bail on 27 July. He and his cameraman, Hargurbinder Raju, who was not arrested, are now being prosecuted in a case brought by the Fazilka district bar association because they reported that one of its members worked as a lawyer for three years without being qualified.
Hotchpotch of charges
The extraordinary range of charges brought against them includes extortion, cheating, intimidation and conspiracy under sections 384, 420, 506 et 120B of the criminal code. They are also charged under sections 66 and 67 of the Information Technology Act, which penalize “false information” and “obscene material” – charges still used in Indian criminal law although the supreme court ruled in 2015 that this was illegal.
In all, the two journalists are facing the possibility of sentences that could total 22 years in prison. Their plight is compounded by the fact that the Fazilka district bar association is intimidating any lawyer they ask to defend them and has filed an additional spurious complaint with the aim of getting Sain’s release on bail rescinded.
The latest instance of this persecution came on the morning of 22 September, when Sain went to the courthouse in Fazilka for a hearing in his case, and the court’s employees failed to tell him when the hearing began, with the result that he was unable to testify and, in his absence, another hearing was set for 29 September.
“I think the court employees and the lawyers for the opposing party fixed things so that I wouldn’t appear before the judge and my absence could be used to get him to cancel my bail,” he told RSF.
“We urge law and justice minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to intervene at once to end this denial of justice affecting Sunil Kumar Sain and Hargurbinder Raju,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“What with torture by the police and harassment by judicial representatives, who are depriving them of the right to be defended and represented by a lawyer, these two journalists are being subjected to a shocking level of persecution by the Fazilka district authorities for exposing a scandal. The charges against them must be withdrawn at once.”
India is ranked 140th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.