Sunday, December 1, 2013

Case File 2: VAW: AALI

The Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives (AALI), India, is a feminist legal advocacy and resource group that works towards addressing women’s issues through a rights-based perspective. Envisioning an egalitarian social system that recognizes women as complete individuals and equal human beings through advocacy for women’s human rights, the organization undertakes research, activism and direct response with a strong focus on violence against women and the right to choice in relationship decision-making. In the course of their work for women’s rights, AALI recently came under fire for their crusade for justice for a 19-year-old girl.

When 19-year-old G* was sexually harassed by her brother, the Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives stood by her in her pursuit of justice. Giving her shelter, AALI submitted applications to different police units and the State Human Rights Commission, seeking for their intervention and appropriate action in the matter. G was asked to be brought in person before the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), who then took down her statements in the presence of two lady constables, the shelter’s caretaker and three of AALI’s members.

When a complaint to the effect that the girl was missing began to do the rounds, AALI was informed of the need for her statement at the earliest. On all correspondences, the Association was clear about demanding the non-disclosure of their address.  A few days later, a police officer visited AALI’s office to take G’s statement – though just before the statement could be recorded, the members of G’s family were there with her brother’s friend in tow. They were told to leave, with the assertion that the office was closed. When asked about the disclosure of AALI’s address, the police officer denied having circulated or shared such information.  When the police officer was leaving, members of the AALI office noticed a parked vehicle filled with G’s family members. Sensing the threat to their security, the members of AALI sought police protection – which was denied since the police officer said he didn’t have power to do the same. When they approached the district police station by calling in, protection wasn’t given under the claim that they didn’t have the requisite armed forces with them. AALI was advised to call another police station – which, after an hour, sent two police officers. The two of them left within twenty minutes, claiming that there was no one around to threaten them, and that AALI’s members should call on them should they find any trouble.  Three jeeps, fully occupied by people were watching the office – and G was increasingly worried. She drafted an application seeking protection – which was denied.

Following many efforts, an inspector finally arrived. AALI’s members left the premises with police protection, and lodged the First Information Report with the police for G’s case. While a receipt for that FIR was given, no receipt was given for the application made for protection. Each of AALI’s members were dropped home, while one of the was dropped back at the office to complete paper work, including the protection application that was to be sent in by speed post.

That afternoon, a mob of about forty to fifty people entered AALI’s premises and beat up the lone member left there. They broke the locked door of the office and forced her to call the other two members of AALI, with whom G was, that morning. One of the members returned and around 5:00 pm both the girls were abducted and taken by them to a temple, where they were molested and beaten up badly. They were forced to call the head of AALI, informing her that they were abducted and that the abductors wanted information on the girl’s whereabouts. The head immediately called the police, seeking immediate intervention.

Seven out of the fifty men were arrested, and one was let out that same night. The girls were sent for a medical check-up, and after much effort, a FIR was lodged. Meanwhile, G refused to meet her parents and decided to go back to the shelter that AALI provided her with. On the next day, when the group was at the court, about fifty to sixty people – an assortment of advocates and G’s relatives attacked, dragged and physically abused AALI’s members. In the commotion that ensured, G was separated from AALI’s team, and was snatched away by the abductors and their lawyers, right under the investigating officer’s nose. G later mentioned that while she was taken away, she was put in a room where her family members, lawyers and the investigating officer tried to emotionally and physically force and coerce her including making her sign on blank paper. The District Judge was informed of these incidents, and he took immediate and serious cognizance of the matter; and directed the district Police Station, to provide immediate security to the girl, and ensure the recording of her statement. He also passed an Administrative Order in the same regard.

Following this, the judge ruled that G was an adult and had the freedom to go wherever she wanted to. The investigating officer was directed to provide protection to the girl, while she was informed to lodge a First Information Report on the incident in the court premises. For a long time after the First Information Report was filed, investigations hadn’t been initiated. Letters, evidence and such other relevant information was adduced to the police authorities. G’s statements were recorded by the police, after which she personally handed a withdrawal application stating that she no longer required shelter. Following these events, bail applications were put up for the six men who were arrested. One of the accused and his family filed a writ petition to seek the quashing of the First Information Report, which was dismissed. G meanwhile submitted a free-will application to AALI, indicating that she wanted to leave to a safe place – details of which she did not disclose to AALI.

The threat and fear of further attacks still remains alive as the attackers have threatened the team members and are constantly enquiring about the whereabouts of the team members from the caretakers of the organization’s office. From AALI’s side, all procedures have been followed completely. That these brutal attacks have taken place in a posh colony in one of India’s northern states, with the District Court and High Court situated right in the center of the town, and no action was taken only demonstrates the thriving hotbed of impunity that has encouraged the crime to fester. AALI is currently petitioning the governmental authorities demanding prompt and strict action against the perpetrators.

A word from Neetika Vishwanath, Legal Retainer, AALI: 
“The members of the organization are passion driven feminists dedicated to the issue of defending women's' human rights. AALI's works enables the members to undertake grass-root level work and take it to the court for effective implementation of the law. The nexus between the grass root level work and the courts helps make a difference. All the members have chosen this area of work because they intend to work towards access to justice for these women survivors with a rights-based approach.. AALI believes that such attacks on women rights defenders happen because the law enforcing agency let the perpetrators get away. The attack on AALI would not have happened had the law enforcing agency been quick and responsive. Our petition is a way to create pressure on the law enforcing agency for immediate arrests of the main perpetrators who are still at large. We also want them to know that we are not an isolated bunch of people and we have support from many. We are working as human rights defenders to promote the Constitution and it is the duty of the state to ensure that such violations do not happen. In the 15 years of our subsistence and work, there have been threats but there never has been such attack on the organisation or its people. We have always adopted strategies within the limits of law by approaching the concerned officials and we are doing the same this time as well.”

* Name changed to preserve privacy