India Facebook arrests: Supreme Court demands explanation

Shaheen Dhada, left, and Renu Srinivas, who were arrested for their Facebook posts, leave a court in Mumbai on Nov 20, 2012 Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan said they were "traumatised" by their arrest

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India's Supreme Court has asked the government in western Maharashtra state to explain last week's arrest of two women over a comment on Facebook.

Shaheen Dhada was arrested for her comment following the death of politician Bal Thackeray.

Her friend, Renu Srinivasan, who "liked" the comment, was also arrested. The two were later released on bail.

The arrests of led to an outrage in India with critics accusing the government of "abuse of authority".

On Thursday, India's telecoms ministry issued new guidelines which make it harder for the police to arrest people for comments on social networking and other internet sites.

Now, a senior officer must approve before a complaint can be registered under the controversial Section 66A of the Information Technology Act which can send a person to jail for three years for sending an email or electronic message which "causes annoyance or inconvenience".

'Vague'

A Delhi student, Shreya Singhal, has challenged the law in the Supreme Court.

She says "the phraseology of Section 66A is so wide and vague and incapable of being judged on objective standards that it is susceptible to wanton abuse".

On Friday, a Supreme Court bench comprising Chief Justice Altamas Kabir and Justice J Chelameswar heard her petition.

"The Maharashtra government is directed to explain the circumstances under which the two girls - Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan - were arrested for posting comments made by them on Facebook," Press Trust of India quoted the justices as saying.

The judges gave the state four weeks to give its response.

The Supreme Court also asked the government in West Bengal state and the southern city of Pondicherry to explain similar arrests made in recent past.

In April, the West Bengal government arrested Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra, a teacher who had emailed to friends a cartoon that was critical of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. He was later released on bail.

In October, Ravi Srinivasan, a 46-year-old businessman in Pondicherry, was arrested for a tweet criticising Karti Chidambaram, son of Indian Finance Minister P Chidambaram. He too was later released on bail.

All the arrests were made under Section 66A.

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