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French filmmaker released after six-month ordeal following arrest at Dalit rally in UP

French filmmaker released after six-month ordeal following arrest at Dalit rally in UP

French film director Valentin Hénault has finally returned to France after a harrowing six-month legal battle in India, according to a report published in The Wire. Hénault was arrested in October 2023 for allegedly violating visa conditions after attending a Dalit march in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh.

His experience has highlighted concerns about the treatment of foreign nationals and the use of legal mechanisms to curb dissent in India.

Hénault arrived in India on August 10, 2023, with plans to work on a documentary focusing on the atrocities faced by Dalit women. His travels took him through Bihar and Jharkhand before he arrived in Uttar Pradesh.

On October 10, he attended a rally led by peasant women demanding land rights for Dalits, known as "Ambedkar’s People’s March." During the event, a speaker mentioned Hénault's presence, identifying him as an international observer. This drew the attention of local intelligence agents who questioned him briefly at the venue.

Despite being allowed to leave the rally after answering some questions, Hénault was apprehended later that day from his hotel room by the police. He was accused of violating Article 14b of the Foreign Act, which pertains to the use of forged passports and remaining in the country without proper authorization.

The police claimed that his visa application listed a reference contact in Dhanbad and restricted his movements to Jharkhand, an allegation Hénault and his supporters found baseless as his e-business visa had no such geographical limitations.

Following his arrest, Hénault was processed in a makeshift court in a parking lot and sent to Gorakhpur prison. His stay in the overcrowded prison was marked by severe hardships. He described the conditions as inhumane, with inmates sleeping on the floor in such cramped quarters that it was impossible to move.

For a time, he was held in a cell designated for mentally unstable individuals, where physical abuse was reportedly used to maintain order. Despite these challenges, Hénault considered it a relative privilege due to the slightly more spacious conditions.

Throughout his imprisonment, Hénault managed to stay in touch with the French embassy, which provided him with a lawyer. His situation gained international attention, and his father eventually travelled to India, securing a new lawyer and facilitating his release on bail on November 10, 2023.

However, Hénault's troubles were far from over. A lookout notice (LOC) was issued against him, preventing him from leaving India. His passport was confiscated, prolonging his ordeal.

The French embassy informed his family that the delays in lifting the LOC were partly due to the Indian election period. It wasn't until May 2024 that the legal obstacles were cleared, allowing Hénault to return to France on May 4.

Hénault's case has drawn significant attention to the challenges faced by journalists and filmmakers in India, a country that ranked 159th out of 176 in the 2024 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

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