Why coronavirus may bring succour to Assam’s ‘stepchildren’

Families of D voters in Assam urge government to free them from detention centres in view of coronavirus threat, civil rights group writes to CJI quoting recent SC order to decongest prisons   

Delhi jails, prison inmates, emergency parole, coronavirus, COVID-19, Lockdown
For jail term of more than five and up to 10 years, only those convicts will be released who have completed a stay of six months and their appeal is not pending in the court. Photo: iStock

The coronavirus crisis may be a disaster for the world, but it might bring good news for some in Assam. Twenty-seven year old Hazrat Ali was worried for his ailing father Hanif Ali, who has been locked up at the Goalpara detention centre for the past one year after being named a doubtful voter in the voter list.

But now Hazrat sees a ray of hope of seeing his father walk free again as pressure mounts on the government to release inmates lodged in the six detention centres across the state.

Hope against hope

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“Life has been tough without the headman of the family for the past one year. We are worried for our father. He stays with other prisoners in a congested cell. And we are getting terrible news of the corona outbreak. We have pleaded to the government to release our father and other prisoners so that they don’t get infected,” Hazrat, a resident of Barpeta Road told The Federal.

Hazrat’s father, a vegetable seller was picked up from the market place in March 2019 after being served a notice for being a doubtful voter. He had fought his case at the Foreigners’ Tribunal and the Guahati High Court, but to no avail.

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“We are poor people and don’t have enough money to fight our case anymore. Our lives are at the mercy of the government now. My father also suffers from heart-related ailments and had breathing issues the last time my mother visited him. I’m hopeful that the government will listen to our prayers,” Hazrat added.

There are hundreds in the state like Hazrat who cling on to the same hope.

Making a case

A representation has been submitted before the Chief Justice of India seeking the release of detainees from these centres in view of the coronavirus situation. It was submitted by Justice and Liberty Initiative (JLI) on the ground that many of those in the detention centres were old and ailing and thus are at the risk of contracting the disease.

“As human beings, they have the basic right to live and not die of coronavirus inside the prison, which has despicable living conditions,” said the representation submitted by advocate Aman Wadud on behalf of the organisation.

JLI provides legal aid to Indian nationals who have not been able to prove their citizenship during the National Register of Citizens (NRC) enrolment process in Assam.

The six detention centres in Assam house more than 800 people. Since 2011, at least 29 inmates have died of various ailments and last year alone the number of deaths was 10.

Breach of civil rights

The representation said that the detention of these people is not imprisonment due to criminal acts, but akin to civil imprisonment, as the failure to prove Indian citizenship only entails civil consequences.

“Detention is supposed to be a temporary measure before the deportation of the person to his or her country of origin. The state has deported only four declared foreigners since 2013,” stated the representation based on an affidavit of Assam government submitted in the Supreme Court last year.

Earlier on May 10, 2019, the Supreme Court said that foreigners who have spent over three years in detention centres in Assam can be released on two Indian sureties of ₹1 lakh each, but such released foreigners would have to report to local police stations to ensure that they do not abscond.

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“It is pertinent to mention that many of them are languishing due to the ex-parte order passed against them. Moreover, many of the detenus (detainees) have challenged the Foreigners Tribunals orders which are pending either before the Hon’ble High Court or the Hon’ble Supreme Court,” it stated.

It also referred to Section 59(3)(a) of the Code of Civil Procedure, which talks about the power of the state to release a person from civil prison on the ground of any infectious or contagious disease.

“It is also a fact that most of the detention centres are now overcrowded, and in the event of outbreak of COVID-19, the result is not difficult to perceive. Moreover, Article 21 applies to all natural persons. The right to life is available to every person, both citizen and alien. Thus even a foreigner can claim this right under Article 21 of the Constitution,” it states.

The representation also referred to a recent Supreme Court order that asked all states and Union territories to set up high-level panels which would consider releasing all convicts who have been jailed for up to seven years on parole to decongest jails in an attempt to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.

Organisations like All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) and Bengali associations have also demanded that the detainees should be released on the humanitarian ground.

“This is a crisis across the world. The people who have been lodged in the detention centres are highly vulnerable. Most of the detention centres are overcrowded and they live in an unhygienic atmosphere. So, we want the state government to take some immediate steps to release these inmates for a greater cause,” said AAMSU working president Ainuddin Ahmed.

The state government, however, is yet to respond in this regard.

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