Growing backlash over Indian cartoonist arrest

India's government faced a mounting domestic and international backlash Tuesday over the arrest of a cartoonist on sedition charges as critics accused it of using colonial era laws to crush dissent.

The arrest at the weekend of Aseem Trivedi, a freelance cartoonist and anti-corruption campaigner, sparked outrage from activists who say that Indian authorities have become increasingly intolerant of criticism.

Media rights group Reporters Without Borders called for the immediate and unconditional release of Trivedi, who has refused to apply for bail saying that he wants all charges dropped.

"The prosecution and detention of the cartoonist are a gross violation of freedom of expression and information," the Paris-based organisation said.

Trivedi's arrest came shortly after India ordered more than 300 websites, social networking pages, Twitter accounts and other online content to be blocked in an attempt to halt the spread of rumours about ethnic violence.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) echoed calls for Trivedi to be freed in a case that has sparked widespread debate about freedom of expression in India.

"Criminalising Aseem Trivedi's efforts to highlight the serious problem of corruption is a perverse exercise of power and runs completely counter to India's democratic principles," said Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia programme coordinator.

Cartoons on Trivedi's website show the sole surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks urinating on the Indian constitution, and the parliament building shaped as a huge toilet bowl.

Another cartoon titled "Gang Rape of Mother India" shows a woman draped in the Indian flag being held down by a politician and a bureaucrat as a horned animal depicting corruption appears ready to attack her.

Trivedi was arrested in Mumbai under laws governing sedition, information technology and protecting India's national flag and constitution after a private complaint from a young lawyer based in the city.

A court on Monday ordered the cartoonist to be held in custody until September 24.

The Times of India in its lead editorial on Tuesday called for the British colonial-era sedition law to be scrapped.

"In independent India, instead of being revoked, the sedition law has been used against a variety of dissent," it said.

"Independent India's politicians are clearly using the archaic colonial law as a tool of contemporary intimidation."

The Indian Express said that moves against Trivedi were like using "an H-bomb to slay a rabbit".

Law Minister Salman Khurshid has insisted that the Indian court system is independent of the government, adding that "there is rule of law and an appropriate procedure... I am sure that the law will take its own course".

In the most famous recent sedition case, Indian doctor and human rights activist Binayak Sen was jailed for life in 2010 for allegedly helping Maoist rebels.

He was freed on bail last year on the instructions of the Supreme Court which ruled that the sentence should be suspended.

India has recently shown sensitivity to criticism of its leaders, with the government responding angrily to a Washington Post article on the struggling Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been hit by a string of graft scandals.

Accusations of intolerance over satirical cartoons surfaced in May when lawmakers reacted in fury over an old cartoon being used in school textbooks lampooning B.R. Ambedkar, author of India's constitution.

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