A journalist who has been in jail for nearly two years for trying to meet the family of a young Dalit woman allegedly gang-raped in Hathras in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) has been granted bail.
The supreme court of India issued the bail order to Siddique Kappan, 43, a Delhi-based Muslim freelance journalist, on Friday.
The alleged rapists beat up the teenager when she resisted and she died because of the injuries she received during the assault. Her body was then cremated by the police without the consent of her family, it was alleged.
The rape, death and cremation of the 19-year-old Dalit woman sparked widespread outrage and media attention.
UP police arrested Kappan on 5 October 2020 when he was on the way to Hathras to cover the case, and booked him under terrorism, sedition and other charges. The police invoked the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 (UAPA) – a stringent anti-terrorism law – against him.
The police wrote in the charge sheet submitted to the court that Kappan often wrote reports “only to incite Muslims” and that “sympathise with Maoists and Communists”. The charge sheet also noted that he worked at a thinktank of the Muslim political group the Popular Front of India (PFI). According to the charge sheet, the PFI was involved in terrorism-related activities.
Kappan insisted that he was going to Hathras only to cover the rape and killing of the Dalit woman for the Malayalam news portal Azhimukham.
Global media rights groups have raised their voices against Kappan’s arrest.
Vienna-based media rights group the International Press Institute condemned his arrest.
“We are extremely concerned that Mr Kappan was targeted and detained due to his journalistic activity. In the absence of evidence justifying these accusations, all charges against Mr Kappan must be immediately dropped,” the deputy director, Scott Griffen, said last year.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said the police charges against Kappan were “bogus” and demanded he be released immediately.
Kappan’s bail petition was rejected by Allahabad high court in August. He then moved to the supreme court to challenge the high court order.
Granting Kappan bail on Friday, the chief justice of India, UU Lalit, said: “Every person has the right to free expression. He is trying to show that victim needs justice and raise a common voice. Is that a crime in the eyes of the law?”
Kappan’s lawyer, Haris Beeran, said the prosecution had failed to provide evidence in support of the charges against Kappan.
“The prosecution claimed that the PFI deposited 45,000 rupees (£485) to Kappan’s bank account for terrorism-related activities, so he was charged under one section of the UAPA. But we provided evidence showing how and when Kappan himself had deposited the amount in his account. The prosecution’s argument that the PFI provided funds for terrorist activities fell flat in the supreme court,” Beeran said.
While opposing the bail petition in the supreme court, the lawyer for the UP police claimed that Kappan was going to Hathras in a “conspiracy” to “incite riots” there.
“When the court sought evidence in support of the charge of ‘conspiracy’ and incitement to riots, the prosecution could not present any evidence. The court granted Kappan bail because it was convinced that he was not linked to any activities related to terrorism or riots etc,” Beeran said.
The Delhi University professor Apoorvanand, who uses only one name, said the supreme court has rightly observed that Kappan was doing what was his right: to bring to light an injustice and demand justice for the wronged.
“Kappan was arrested because he is a Muslim and, that too, a journalist,” Apoorvanand said. “Being a Muslim in India in itself is seen as a conspiracy against the nation. Kappan paid a heavy price for being a Muslim. Let’s not forget that, like him, there are other Muslims who are still in jail.”
Kappan’s wife, Raihanath Kappan, said: “We fought very hard for his release for two years and went through immense pain and miseries. The UP government and police spread lies in many ways and tried their best so that my husband does not get bail.
“But in the supreme court the truth has finally won and my husband has been granted bail.”
Excluding Kappan, nine journalists are in jail in India, according to the international campaign group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
India’s ranking in the RSF’s press freedom index has declined in recent years. Of the 180 ranked countries and territories, India is currently in 150th place – a fall from 142nd last year.