An Indian cartoonist who was arrested this weekend over sedition charges was released on Wednesday from a Mumbai jail. A freelance journalist and anti-corruption campaigner, Aseem Trivedi accepted the bail granted by the Bombay High Court last evening, according to his lawyer.
"Although I'm free, the battle will continue," said Trivedi,who was welcomed by heavy crowds waiting outside the prison chanting slogans.
"Whenever there is an infringement of legal rights, our fight will continue," he added.
Trivedi had originally refused to accept bail until the sedition charges against him were dropped, but his lawyer said that he decided to come out of jail to campaign against the colonial-era sedition laws. The Bombay High Court ordered him to pay a bond of 5,000 rupees ($90) for his release.
"He has accepted to be released on bail," his lawyer Vijay Hiremath told AFP, saying the case was now being reviewed. "We are hopeful that they will drop the charges."
Aseem Trivedi’s arrest sparked outrage among local and international press groups demanding his release and protection of rights to free speech.
Doha Centre for Media Freedom spoke to the Executive Director of Cartoon Rights Network International Dr. Robert Russell after Trivedi was released from jail. "Over the last few years there has been so much popular dissent about the penal code dealing with sedition that it might be that this particular law is on its last legs," he said. "I for one hope that Trivedi will be the catalyst for the government of India doing away with this and other archaic libel laws based on the previous colonial government."
"I'm happy there has been a debate on sedition," Trivedi said while addressing a press conference. "In parliament we see money exchanging hands (and) scandals worth millions being disclosed," he said.
"You tell me who is embarrassing the parliament, me or the politicians? I have committed no crime," he remarked.
Reports have suggested that the enormous domestic and international backlash over the arrest of the award-winning cartoonist led to his release, although he is likely to face charges of insulting the country's national honour instead.
Press Freedom groups are outraged
Media rights group joined together in support of Trivedi. Reporters Without Borders had earlier called for the immediate and unconditional release of the cartoonist.
"The prosecution and detention of the cartoonist are a gross violation of freedom of expression and information," the Paris-based organisation said.
Trivedi, a previous winner of the Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) Award for Courage in Editorial was also offered support by the CRNI, who denounced his arrest.
CRNI Executive Director Robert Russell said on the group's website: "That a government moves to arrest an anticorruption free speech advocate on what are sure to be revealed as flimsy grounds speaks volumes for the inability or unwillingness of the Indian government to evenhandedly administer its own Constitution."
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.
Trivedi's website which was temporarily blocked in December by Mumbai’s cyber police, has again been blocked by the authorities in India. The site features cartoons showing 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.
Reactions from the local press
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."
“Politicians must learn to be tolerant. This is not a dictatorship,” Markandey Katju, a former Supreme Court justice who now heads the Press Council of India, told CNN-IBN television.
The editor of CNN-IBN news channel, Rajdeep Sardesai, in an interview with BBC said he found it "amusing but also very dangerous that you can get away with hate speech in this country, but parody and political satire leads to immediate arrest".
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".
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.