Act on sexual abuse complaints by wrestlers: Global sports and rights body urges IOC, govt
The statement highlighted that the IOC called for an “unbiased, criminal investigation in line with local law” on 30 May 2023 in a statement, but the Indian authorities have been reluctant to act
The Sport and Rights Alliance, a global coalition of leading NGOs and trade unions working together to embed human rights and anti-corruption across world sport, has called upon the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to immediately act to ensure reports of alleged sexual abuse of athletes by the president of the Wrestling Federation of India, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, are investigated fully.
“Indian officials might stoutly claim to defend the rights of women and girls, but when it has been put to test by the country’s foremost athletes, the authorities have resorted to victim blaming and shaming,” said Joanna Maranhão, network coordinator of the Sport & Rights Alliance in a statement published on their website.
At least 30 top Indian wrestlers, both men and women, first protested on January 18, saying that Singh, as well as some coaches, had been sexually abusing athletes. The protests were led by Olympic medal-winning wrestlers Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik, and two-time World Championship medalist Vinesh Phogat.
The statement highlighted that the IOC called for an “unbiased, criminal investigation in line with local law” on 30 May 2023 in a statement, but the Indian authorities have been reluctant to act, only initiating a police investigation after the complainants filed a petition in the Supreme Court. (https://sportandrightsalliance.org/olympics-act-on-sexual-abuse-complaints-by-indian-athletes/)
Six women and a child have filed complaints of sexual abuse with the police against Singh, a prominent member of parliament from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Singh denies the allegations, and made derogatory remarks against the complainants.
“It takes a lot of courage to break the silence and disclose a case of sexual abuse. We stand with the athletes and encourage the IOC to protect them, especially in this deeply power-imbalanced situation. Their wellbeing should be the top priority,” added Maranhão in her statement.
The IOC should call on the Indian government to inform it of progress in the investigation, and to ensure that it is credible and timebound, the alliance said. The statement urged the IOC to the safety and freedom of all athletes, as set out in its own IOC Strategic Framework on Human Rights. Given the inaction of political bodies in India over recent months, the IOC should press the Indian government to ensure that the authorities listen to Indian wrestlers and others affected though a transparent, independent, and impartial investigation into the sexual assault allegations, demanded the global alliance.
The statement noted that Indian authorities forcibly tackled and detained athletes, including two Olympic wrestlers, when they attempted to march to the inauguration of a new parliament building by the prime minister that Singh was attending. They were later released. However, the authorities disbanded their month-long protest site on May 28.
India’s 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, popularly known as the POSH Act, provides protection to all workers in the public and private sectors including health, sports, education, or government institutions. The 2012 Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) forbids all forms of child sexual abuse. Singh, who is also accused under the POCSO Act, has said that the law is being “misused,” and vowed to “force the government to change it.”
The wrestlers called off the protest after they were promised an independent inquiry and that Singh would step aside until the investigation was completed.
The committee has submitted its report, but it has not been made public. Government officials said that the committee had found that Wrestling Federation of India did not have an internal complaints committee mandated by the POSH Act, and failed to take further action against Singh.
Highlighting the numerous failed promises by the government – the constitution of independent inquiry without making its report public and the failure to act against the accused even after assurances – the Alliance said, “The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) is neither independent nor a credible body to carry out an investigation.”
The IOA initially accused the protesting wrestlers of tarnishing India’s image, although its president, Olympic winner PT Usha, later met with the group and pledged support. The athletes resumed their protest after the authorities failed to act, demanding that Singh be arrested.
“In the face of a faltering Indian justice process, the IOC should publicly call on the BJP government to stop suppressing protesters to protect its party member, the Wrestling Federation of India president,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “The IOC has made safeguarding athletes a priority and it should use its leverage and stand with athletes seeking to protect children from abuse in sport.”
The Alliance urged that OC to ensure that any bid from India to host the Olympics is contingent on significant human rights improvements, not least for the safety and freedom of the country’s own athletes. India wants to host the 2036 Olympics, and will also host the 2030 Summer Youth Olympics in Mumbai. Towards this end, India will host an IOC session in Mumbai this October.
“Indian wrestlers coming forward with allegations of sexual abuse, especially against such a powerful figure, is incredibly brave, difficult, and fraught with personal risk,” said Julie Ann Rivers-Cochran, executive director of The Army of Survivors, a survivor-founded organization formed after the Olympic system’s failure to deal with sexual abuse. “These athletes should be supported and protected, and their courageous demands for justice and safety should be met.”