Hundreds of political prisoners languishing in overcrowded jails are at risk of contracting COVID-19, which has already been detected in multiple prisons. Lawyers and activists are calling for their release.
Jail data accessed by DW revealed that 119 inmates across 13 jails in India-administered Kashmir have tested positive for COVID-19. A further 258 out of 4,573 prisoners in these jails are also suspected of contracting the virus, but it has yet to be confirmed.
So far, less than 200 of the inmates have received a COVID vaccine, officials told DW on Tuesday.
Kashmir sees COVID surge
The region has seen a surge in coronavirus infections since March this year after authorities opened Kashmir for tourism and sports events, an effort aimed at showcasing the normalcy of the otherwise troubled region.
Health experts say the arrival of tourists and sportspersons without any COVID testing prompted an abrupt surge in infections.
With 964 new infections and 53 COVID-related deaths reported on Tuesday, the region’s official caseload has climbed to 275,822 with a death toll of 3,662.
Coronavirus testing capacities in India-administered Kashmir are limited.
Health experts who have advocated for a stringent lockdown in the region warn local hospitals would no longer be able to cope if cases multiply further.
Jailed separatist leader dies
On May 5, one of Kashmir’s senior separatist leaders, Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai, who was sent to Udhampur jail, died after contracting COVID-19.
Sehrai had been the president of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, a pro-freedom group in Kashmir that has been at the forefront of demanding an end to New Delhi’s rule in Kashmir.
He was detained in July under the Public Safety Act (PSA), a law that allows detentions without trial for up to two years.
Locked inside Udhampur jail, 200 kilometers (124 miles) away from his home in the city of Srinagar, his family said they had not seen him for five months as authorities barred jail visitors due to the pandemic.
A week after Sehrai’s death, Indian police arrested his two sons under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for “raising anti-national slogans” at the funeral site, which was restricted for a few family members.
Pro-India political parties accused the BJP-led administration of also punishing Sehrai’s children.
Sehrai’s daughter, Suraya Ashraf, told DW that the family had filed a petition in the court seeking medical treatment but that relief was not provided.
“Two weeks before daddy’s death, he was allowed to talk to us. He told us he was suffering from acute body pain and giddiness. He had lost weight and energy,” Ashraf said.
She said the family received a phone call from jail authorities informing them of Sehrai’s deteriorating health.
“Before we could reach Jammu, he was already dead. The jail authorities didn’t provide him medical care on time,” she said.
Calls for the release of political prisoners
Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association (JKHCBA), a body of lawyers in the region, described Sehrai’s demise as “custodial death” and demanded the release of all political prisoners amid the pandemic, especially of prisoners in New Delhi’s Tihar jail.
“We are deeply concerned about the casual approach of courts in dealing with the liberty matters of political prisoners. We have received a dead political prisoner while several hundred are languishing in different jails of India at the risk of contracting the virus,” JKHCBA president Nazir Ronga told DW.
The Supreme Court of India has described the COVID-19 situation as “alarming” and asked states to release prisoners to decongest jails to prevent inmates from contracting the virus.
During a meeting of a high-powered committee on Kashmir on May 17, its chairman justice Ali M Magrey recommended the parole or release on interim bail of prisoners, including those awaiting trial, based on merit as determined by the courts.
But the committee remained silent regarding the release of political prisoners detained under the PSA in various jails across India.
“On COVID grounds, we have not released on interim bail or parole any political prisoner detained under the PSA. Until today, there is no direction from the court or government to release people in preventive detention under the PSA,” said a senior jail officer.
He said vaccination programs at prisons had been delayed because some inmates could not provide proof of identity — a pre-requisite for receiving the shot. The rules have since been relaxed and vaccination in jails has picked up again, he added.
Isolating prisoners is ‘the only prevention’
Mir Urfi, a senior human rights lawyer, said despite clear directions from the Supreme Court to decongest jails, political prisoners of Kashmir are being denied protection against COVID-19.
“The government is trying to prove itself right while people are suffering in overcrowded jails,” said Urfi, who is a member of the JKHCBA and represented thousands of PSA cases in courts.
“Isolating prisoners is the only prevention against COVID in Indian jails.”
Given the extraordinary situation created by the pandemic, Urfi said the government should take extraordinary decisions to release them.
B Srinivas, the region’s director general for prisons, did not respond to calls and emails from DW seeking comment.
Author: Samaan Lateef (Srinagar)