NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Four Ugandan women living in the Indian capital have accused the city's law minister and his supporters of mistreatment and illegal detention after local residents claimed the women were part of a prostitution and drugs racket.
Delhi Law Minister Somnath Bharti, from the newly-elected Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and his supporters stopped a taxi carrying the four women in the early hours of Jan. 15 in the south of the city.
The women said the mob threatened and intimidated them. Some of them said they were manhandled and forcibly taken to undergo medical examinations at a government hospital. One woman said she was forced to urinate in public.
"We were returning from a party when … we saw a lot of Indian men on the road. They stopped our car, started shouting at us. We were really scared, so refused to step out. They started banging the doors of our car. When the police came, we finally stepped out of the car," one of the women told CNN-IBN news channel.
Another woman demanded Bharti's resignation.
"The police helped us because I think they (the crowd) were going to kill us. The way they were treating us was as if we were criminals. We are not criminals. The minister who conducted the raid should be made to resign. What he's doing is not right."
Bharti admits that an incident took place, but says there was no ill-treatment of the women. He says he was forced to act because the police failed to do so, despite complaints from local residents.
On Sunday, the police registered a complaint against “unknown persons” for offences against the four women - including wrongful restraint, outraging the modesty of women and promoting enmity between different groups.
India's Ministry of External Affairs has condemned the incident and held a meeting with African diplomats on Saturday reassuring them that their nationals were safe in the country.
"I think it's shocking, completely unconstitutional, unacceptable. I am worried about attitude here which (shows) just because you see someone different from you, (you) put label of the worst kind of social evil on them,” Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told the CNN-IBN news channel.
“It's completely unacceptable. What face will we show to the world - that in India we have people with such a narrow, such a ridiculous way of treating foreigners?"
Ethiopian Ambassador to India, Genet Zewdie, also expressed concern over the incident.
"Of course we're very much concerned, (people) are being harassed like that. It is not only a concern to African ambassadors but to everybody. I think the way it was handled was not appropriate. It is not right and it has to be condemned,” she told reporters.
Scores of activists and university students were joined by African nationals at a protest in central Delhi on Sunday, calling Bharti's actions racist and sexist, and demanding his suspension.
ROW OVER "CORRUPT" POLICE
Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has backed his law minister and denied accusations of racism and mistreatment of the Ugandan nationals.
“We have absolutely nothing against residents of any country. We respect foreigners as our honoured guests. These are very sensitive issues and we should not make them into a diplomatic row,” Kejriwal told the NDTV news channel.
Kejriwal said Bharti was forced to act after police refused to do anything despite numerous complaints from the public, alleging that the police were also involved in the suspected sex and drugs racket. The police said they did not act as they did not have a warrant.
In an unprecedented move, Kejriwal began a 10-day protest on Monday calling for the policemen involved to be suspended and demanding that the Home Affairs Ministry hand over control of the city's police to his authority so it could root out corrupt officers and reform the police force.
Tackling corruption was the AAP's main policy platform in their campaign for the Delhi Assembly elections last month.
The fledgling party - which is led by Kejriwal, a former revenue officer and social activist – scored a stunning result in the Delhi polls, winning 28 of the 70 seats and forming a new city government with outside support from the Congress Party.
Since AAP took office three weeks ago, it has eschewed the usual displays of power enjoyed by many of India's politicians, such as expensive official cars that routinely ran red lights, and promised Delhi’s residents cheap water and power supplies. It has also started an anti-corruption helpline which has received tens of thousands of calls from the public.
Human rights groups suggested the incident could lose the AAP support as it heads to contest national elections due before May.
"Arbitrary detention and manhandling of Ugandan women in New Delhi reflect poorly on standards expected of newly-formed Delhi government,” G. Ananthapadmanabhan, chief executive of Amnesty International India, said in a statement.
“The Delhi government must respect due process of law and rights of those suspected of crimes."