Indian climate activist granted bail over farmer protests

NEW DELHI (AP) — An Indian court on Tuesday granted a 22-year-old climate activist bail, 10 days after she was detained on sedition charges for her alleged role in the creation of an online document intended to help amplify farmer protests.

Disha Ravi is part of the Indian wing of Fridays for Future, a global climate change movement founded by Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. She was arrested on Feb. 13 at her home in the southern city of Bengaluru by New Delhi police.

The police, who had detained Ravi for questioning, said she was a “key conspirator” in the “formulation and dissemination” of a protest document, which the authorities are calling a “toolkit." They said the document spread misinformation about the months-long protests by farmers and “tarnished the image of India."

The document is part of a police investigation into how a group of farmers stormed New Delhi’s historic Red Fort complex on Jan. 26, in one of the few violent incidents in otherwise peaceful ongoing protests on the fringes of the capital.

Tens of thousands of farmers have camped outside New Delhi for three months to protest new agricultural laws that they say will devastate their livelihoods. The protests have posed a major challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government, which says the laws are needed to modernize Indian farming.

In its decision, the court said the evidence produced by police against Ravi was scanty. It said a “call for violence” that police alleged was in the document she shared was "conspicuously absent.”

“Sedition cannot be invoked to minister to wounded vanity of the government,” the court added. “Even our founding fathers accorded due respect to divergence of opinion by recognizing the freedom of speech and expression as an inviolable fundamental right.”

Police had said the document Ravi shared on social media indicated there was a “conspiracy” behind the violence in which one protester was killed and hundreds of police and demonstrators were injured.

She was booked under the sedition law, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Prosecutions under the colonial-era law are rare, but successive governments have used it to silence journalists, critics and dissents. Official data show that Modi’s government has used the law more than any other — up by nearly 30%.

Last week, a judge, while hearing Ravi’s bail plea, called the police accusations “conjecture" after her lawyer argued that the “toolkit” was a mere “resource document” that social activists often use for campaigning, and that it made no mention of violence and did not incite any.

Ravi's case drew widespread condemnation in India and overseas. Protests were held in multiple Indian cities for her release, with critics and opposition parties saying her case highlights a growing crackdown on dissent under Modi’s government.

Ravi’s arrest came days after the government ordered Twitter to block certain accounts and charged journalists with sedition.