Cartoonist arrest revives free-speech debate in India

MUMBAI Mon Sep 10, 2012 9:49pm IST

Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi shouts slogans as he is escorted by police outside a court in Mumbai September 10, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer

Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi shouts slogans as he is escorted by police outside a court in Mumbai September 10, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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MUMBAI (Reuters) - The arrest of a cartoonist on sedition charges for drawings that satirise graft in India's political elite rekindled a national debate on freedom of speech on Monday weeks after a clampdown on Twitter in the world's largest democracy.

Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi turned himself in and was remanded in custody on Sunday, an official at the east Mumbai police station told Reuters.

The arrest followed a private complaint over a series of cartoons, including one that depicts the parliament building as a lavatory buzzing with flies. (link.reuters.com/wyt52t)

If found guilty, the satirist faces a three-year prison term.

Trivedi became an instant cause celebre among free speech and anti-corruption activists who complain India's corruption-plagued government is increasingly intolerant of criticism.

Tousle-haired and bearded, Trivedi shouted slogans as he was bundled by police into a patrol car outside the court, television images showed. He refused the services of a lawyer and welcomed his own arrest.

"If telling the truth makes one a traitor, then I am happy," he said. #AseemTrivedi was a top search term on Twitter on Monday.

The case against him was filed in a Mumbai court by a local advocate who said the pictures mocked national symbols. He has no known links to the government.

Also charged with posting seditious and obscene content on his website, which is now blocked, Trivedi declined to apply for bail in a sign of protest.

Nationalist heroes such as Mahatma Gandhi were frequently charged with sedition in their campaign for independence from Britain.

Last month, the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh temporarily blocked access to a number of Twitter accounts including several spoof accounts imitating the prime minister. The government has also responded angrily to articles by the foreign media criticising Singh's record on tackling corruption.

In April, police arrested professor Ambikesh Mahapatra in Kolkata for allegedly sharing by email cartoons that ridiculed Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal state. Mahapatra was later released.

"Those politicians and those policemen who make these arrests should be arrested and put up on trial," Markandey Katju, Chairman of the Press Council of India told TV station CNN-IBN.

(Reporting by Annie Banerji in New Delhi; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Ron Popeski)

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