As Covid-19 Rages, J&K Moves Prisoners To Jails In Worse-Off States

14 May 2021 8 min read  Share

Hundreds of Kashmiri prisoners—including women and children—are held in out-of-state jails. More are being moved, in the midst of the world’s worst Covid outbreak. As a 77-year-old dies, fearful families speak of distance, sickness and death

A file photo of Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai at his home in Barzulla in uptown Srinagar/FAISAL KHAN

Srinagar: Nuzhat Shah is restless these days and fearful for her husband Shahid-ul-Islam, 55, who is diabetic, suffers from osteoarthritis and on 26 April 2021 tested positive for Covid-19.

For three years since 2017, Islam, media advisor to the Hurriyat Conference—which seeks a referendum on the status of Kashmir—has been incarcerated in Tihar jail, more than 800 km south of here.

Shah, who lives with her two teenage daughters in Srinagar city, said her husband’s condition in the jail had “severely affected” the mental health of her children. Their stress grew after the death of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat chairman Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai, 77, who died in custody on Wednesday in a government hospital in Jammu. Although Sehrai tested negative for Covid-19, he had developed symptoms.

The death of Sehrai has brought into focus how hundreds of Kashmiris, including prominent political prisoners, women and teenagers, are incarcerated in overcrowded prisons—they were filled to 118% capacity in 2019—within and outside Kashmir, all at risk from India’s deadly second Covid-19 wave. The movement of Kashmiri prisoners continues during the pandemic, often to states with greater infection and death rates.

There is no evidence that any have been vaccinated, and the old and the vulnerable, said families, should be released; even those younger should get bail or parole while the pandemic rages, they said. On 8 May, the Supreme Court ordered the “decongestion” of prisons nationwide and special committees to screen and release prisoners.

The order came too late for Sehrai, and it was unclear if he would have been eligible for release, arrested as he was on 12 July 2020 under Jammu and Kashmir’s Public Safety Act, 1978, which allows the police to detain suspects without bail or explanation, largely on presumption, or even anticipation, of guilt.

His son Mujahid Sehrai told Article 14 that his father—who has spent 16 years of his political life of six decades in prison—had complained of worsening health to jail officials, but there was no medical care evident.

Prominent separatist leaders who are in prisons outside J&K include Muslim League Chairperson Masarat Alam, Asiya Andrabi of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of Faith), her husband Ashiq Hussain Faktoo, Democratic Freedom Party chief Shabir Shah, Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chief Yasin Malik, Nayeem Khan of the National Front, Hurriyat leaders Altaf Shah, Peer Saifullah, Ayaz Akbar, Mehraj Kalwal, Amir (or chief) of the Jama’at-e-Islami (JeI) Abdul Hameed Ganaie and scores of JeI members and activists and hundreds of others.

Mujahid said his father’s health appeared to be worsening when the family last spoke to Sehrai 10 days before his death. “He told us he was not able to walk and had acute chest congestion,” said Mujahid.

Doctors at the Government Medical College Jammu, where Sehrai was brought from jail on 5 May, said that he had developed bilateral pneumonia, a severe infection that can scar both lungs and inflames their air sacs, which fill with pus. Doctors said that the pneumonia developed over 10 days, which meant it started in prison.

V K Singh, director general of J&K Prisons said his office had recommended to the home department that Sehrai be moved from Udhampur jail to Jammu Central jail, where he could get better medical attention. But, he said, there was “no forward movement” on the communication.

Another member of Sehrai’s family, requesting anonymity, said that his condition was deteriorating when he was brought to hospital. “[Extended family who visited the hospital] informed us that Sehrai sahib was lying helpless on a bed in the hospital,” said the family member. “He was looking critical.” A day later, Sehrai was dead.

Imperiling Prisoners By Sending Them To Overcrowded Prisons

Nuzhat said that she had no idea about Islam’s health in Tihar, Delhi’s most overcrowded prison, which in March 2020 released 400 prisoners after being stuffed to almost double its capacity, the highest ever in its history. Islam was not among those released.

On 29 April, two Tihar prisoners died of Covid-19 as the infection spread rapidly through the prison complex. Since April, Tihar has reported 284 cases of Covid-19 among prisoners and 115 among jailers.

Nuzhat said she called Tihar officials, who told her that her husband has tested positive and he could not speak over the phone. “He has committed no crime but is being treated like a criminal,” she said. “I appeal to authorities to release him on parole so that he recovers. The coronavirus puts his life in jeopardy.”

Islam, one of many separatists detained over the years, was arrested on 24 July 2017 for “funding militant and subversive activities” in Kashmir. However, according to Nuzhat, the only evidence against him by the National Investigation Agency in its chargesheet is a Pakistan visa form and an admission form of a Pakistani Medical College found at his home.

India’s Covid-19 pandemic is now the world’s deadliest. As it developed, the J&K government over last week of April moved more than a dozen Kashmiri political prisoners from various jails of the union territory (UT) and sent them to jails in Punjab and Haryana, prison department officials said.

Punjab’s prison capacity is nearly nine times that of J&K and Haryana’s nearly seven times, according to 2018 National Crime Records Bureau data, the latest available.

But Punjab and Haryana are engulfed by a second wave of Covid-19 that is worse than J&K’s. On 12 May, while J&K reported 4,509 cases and 65 dead, Punjab reported 8,271 cases and 193 dead and Haryana 12,490 cases and 165 dead.

Relatives of prisoners and human rights groups in Kashmir described the move as “arbitrary” and spoke to us of their fears of infection and death.

Flood Of Kashmiris In Out-Of-State Jails

The largest recent transfer of detained Kashmiris—including politicians, lawyers and activists—to prisons outside the UT began when the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked J&K’s special constitutional status on 5 August 2019.

The government shifted scores of Kashmiri prisoners to jails outside J&K including in Agra, Coimbatore, Jaipur and Tihar.

Most of the detainees have been booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA), 1978—a law termed “a lawless law” by Amnesty International, a global human-rights advocacy—for allowing detention without trial for up to a year.

Most recently, 22 prisoners detained under the PSA were moved to district jails in Karnal and Jhajjar in Haryana in April. J&K Prisons chief Singh said this was done on orders of the home department, for reasons he did not disclose.

A top official of the prisons department, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, said prisons in J&K were overcrowded, and that is why prisoners were moved.

J&K prisons are certainly overcrowded, but so are jails where Kashmiris are being moved.

‘The Old And Vulnerable Should Be Released’

Mudasir Ali’s father Zahid Ali, a lawyer, is currently under detention at the district jail in Pulwama in South Kashmir. Ali is concerned about his father’s health, as the jail is filled to almost twice its capacity.

Zahid, a former spokesperson of now banned JeI, is 63 and on medication. “They don't let us send any food items, not even fruits, vegetables or milk,” said Mudasiri. “They sleep right next to each other. If covid breaks out there, it will spread to everyone. And they haven't been vaccinated, not even old people and those with various ailments.”

Mudasir said that people like his father should have been released on parole.

“Especially those who are old and vulnerable. But they continue to keep the jails overcrowded even when Covid has wreaked havoc,” said Mudasir. “They don't get proper medical care (in normal times). It's shocking that even those over 60 years haven't been vaccinated yet.”

Pulwama jail has a capacity of 96 but currently holds 169 prisoners.

Elena Leclerc, the Health-in-Detention programme coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said an outbreak of Covid-19 disease could prove “devastating” for prisoners; “especially an overcrowded prison where general health is already low”, she said in an interview published on the ICRC website.

Leclerc said an infectious disease is more contagious inside a prison than outside. “The rate of transmission inside places of detention will be higher than outside a detention setting because of the conditions of detention, which often have inadequate ventilation, are overcrowded, and have weaker health systems.”

Women, Teenagers Detained In Outside Jails

Among those taken to prisons outside J&K after the mass detention of 5 August 2019 were women and teenagers, many legally children.

Uzair Ahmad, 18, was a class-12 student when he was arrested on 5 August 2019 from his home in south Kashmir’s Shopian district and sent to Agra jail, more than 1,000 km south.

Muhammad Maqbool Malik, Uzair’s father, a manual labourer, met his son in March 2020 days before India went into coronavirus lockdown.

Malik said he could not afford to travel to Agra even every two months to meet Uzair in Agra jail. “It is a cost beyond my income,” he said.

Malik has pleaded with authorities to move Uzair to a jail in J&K, but the plea was never accepted.

Malik said the government was risking the lives of Kashmiri prisoners by incarcerating them in jails outside J&K. “When the authorities should have thought of bringing the Kashmiri prisoners back, they are sending prisoners away from J&K,” he said.

Tihar women’s jail, which has more Covid-19 cases than any other Delhi prison, also holds Kashmiri women prisoners. “Jail no. 6, a female jail of Tihar prison, has the highest number of Covid-19 cases with 42 positive female inmates,” a Tihar jail official said, requesting anonymity since he is not authorised to speak to the media.

These prisoners include Aasiya Andrabi, 60, and her associates Nahida Nasreen, 55 and Sofi Fehmeeda, 32. Andrabi was chairperson of Dukhtaran-e-Millat, now banned by the government of India.

Andrabi and her associates were detained by police in Anantnag in April 2018, for allegedly planning to organise a large-scale demonstration and stone-pelting in the area. On 6 July 2018, the trio was arrested by the NIA for allegedly waging war against the country and delivering hate speeches. They were detained in Srinagar’s Central Jail before being moved to Tihar in July, 2018.

Andrabi suffers from multiple ailments, such as angioedema, bronchospasm, asthma and other respiratory issues. With her age, comorbidities, and the outbreak of Covid-19 in Tihar, “we are all very worried”, said her son Ahmed Bin Qasim.

Qasim has not spoken to his mother since the outbreak of Covid-19 in Tihar. “One just keeps on hoping that the virus won't reach them,” he said, “The pandemic is difficult for everyone, but for the families of countless Kashmiri political prisoners, the fact that your own loved ones are unreachable for you at the time of this pandemic, and are in the custody of a state that deems them killable, exacerbates the whole problem.”

G N Shaheen, a lawyer and a member of the executive body of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association demanded the movement of Kashmiri prisoners to jail out of state be “halted immediately”.

Shaheen said that he could not accept the argument that prisons in J&K were overcrowded. “There are more than 24 jails across J&K,” he said. “The authorities can easily adjust the prisoners within these jails.”

(Muhammad Raafi is an independent journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir.)