COVID invades Kashmir jails; call to release political prisoners get louder
In the midst of a raging COVID-19 pandemic, major political groups of Jammu and Kashmir, the Kashmir High Court Bar Association, civil society coalitions and family members of incarcerated political prisoners of the region have renewed their demands for the immediate release of leaders languishing behind bars.
The demand has gathered pace following the demise of 77-year-old imprisoned Mohammad Ashraf Khan aka Sehrai, chairperson of the pro-resolution amalgam Tehreek-i-Hurriyat (TeH), at a hospital in Jammu on May 5.
Sehrai’s health condition had deteriorated at the Udhampur Jail where he was lodged under Public Safety Act (PSA) since the middle of the last year. He was a close aide of the ailing pro-independence politician, Syed Ali Geelani.
Mujahid Sehrai, the son of late Sehrai, told The Federal that his father’s death was a direct result of “medical negligence” and “apathy of the jail authorities and administration”.
“It is not about my father alone. Many Kashmiri prisoners are suffering in various prisons. In the absence of medical assistance, the political prisoners are feeling helpless and are in mental distress. It would be prudent to release all prisoners, keeping in view the alarming situation due to COVID-19,” he said.
Mujahid said that Sehrai was suffering from multiple ailments and was dependent on regular medical attention and testing. He alleged that his father was denied the treatment during his imprisonment. “My father was hypertensive, had heart ailment, damaged kidneys, bronchitis as well as thyroid and prostate issues.” Mujahid said his father on April 26 had told him, “I am not in a good health condition. I am feeling dizzy. I am collapsing.”
“Earlier, when my father was in Jharkhand Jail, his hearing ability had suffered too. On April 26, he complained of severe backache, weakness, dizziness and told me that ‘they have kept me here (in Udhampur Jail) to finish me’,” Mujahid added.
According to Harish Kotwal, jail superintendent at Jammu and Kashmir’s Udhampur Jail, Ashraf Sehrai was shifted the Jammu’s Government Medical College (GMC) hospital, some 70 km away from Udhampur, after complaining of respiratory distress.
Mujahid alleged that the authorities did not inform them in advance, and when they did, the information was not accurate. “On Tuesday (May 4), the jail authorities called to inform me that my father was having loose motions. They didn’t say anything about his breathlessness or respiratory distress,” he said. Mujahid flew to Jammu on May 5. By the time he reached GMC Jammu, his father had passed away.
The Sehrai family had filed two petitions, including a recent habeas corpus on April 16, in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. The prayer in the first was to quash the PSA while in the second the family had pleaded to shift Sehrai from Udhampur to Srinagar. Ashraf Sehrai was arrested under PSA on July 12, last year, two months after his son, Junaid Sehrai, an MBA degree holder who had joined militants, was killed in a gunfight in downtown Srinagar.
“Had the authorities paid attention to our pleas, we could have saved my father,” Mujahid said.
Mujahid says Udhampur Jail authorities hadn’t allowed him to visit his father last September. “We were speaking to him over the phone for 10 minutes every week,” he said.
Sehrai’s body was brought to Srinagar from Jammu’s GMC late on May 5. The burial took place at the wee hours of May 6 in the family’s native village in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district under a strict vigil and allegedly on the diktat of the government. Close family members of the deceased leader informed The Federal that Sehrai’s body was buried minutes before the Fajr (pre-dawn prayers) in the presence of a huge number of police personnel to enforce curbs and to prevent a mass gathering at the funeral.
Ashraf Sehrai’s prison term was not new. He was arrested for the first time on March 13, 1965, at the age of 21, for speaking against the arrests by then Jammu and Kashmir Prime Minister Mir Qasim. Qasim had ordered arrests of all those who had supported Sheikh Abdullah’s boycott call against Congress in Kashmir. Sehrai was detained in Central Jail of Srinagar for 20 months. Since then he had spent over 16 years of his life in various jails across India. At Jama’at-e-Islami, he held various positions including general secretary, Naib Ameer (deputy chairman) and also headed its political division. Jail official said that they had written to the J&K’s Home Department previously and also on Tuesday, recommending Sehrai’s shifting from Udhampur to Jammu jail, where he could get better medical attention, but there was no forward movement on this communication.
Before Ashraf Sehrai, 65-year-old Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, a well-known political figure and member of the proscribed Jama’at-e-Islami (JeI), died in Uttar Pradesh’s Naini Central Prison in December 2019, a few months after the Centre stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its statehood. Bhat was among 20 Kashmiri prisoners brought to Naini Jail under the stringent PSA.
Sehrai’s death sparks concern
Deaths of Bhat and Sehrai have left families of other prisoners deeply concerned about their safety, especially at a time when the country is experiencing a massive rise in COVID-19 cases. This has prompted top politicians across ideologies members of Bar Association to demand release of all political prisoners.
On May 7, former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir and president of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) Mehbooba Mufti in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appealed to release all political detainees from the region so that “they can return home when life feels so threatened.”
In an exclusive chat with The Federal, Mufti said, “Ashraf Sehrai’s death speaks volumes about the criminal and callous attitude of the government. To prevent such deaths, it is necessary to release all prisoners, at least on parole, like all civilised nations around the globe have done.”
She described the present situation as “a humanitarian crisis of the worst kind”. “Many prisoners have already died in different jails without much notice. In the case of Jammu and Kashmir, the majority of our people are political prisoners who have been jailed for their ideology,” she asserted.
Advocate GN Shaheen, chief spokesperson of Kashmir High Court Bar Association (HCBA), has also demanded an impartial investigation into the death Sehrai, to ensure that those responsible for “negligence in safeguarding the health and safety of the imprisoned leader can be booked under law.”
Shaheen also criticised local media for failing to give decent coverage to the death of the political leader in custody. “Why should you purchase a newspaper published from Srinagar and waste your money? Media has become a tool to suppress public voices,” he said.
Leading newspapers published from Srinagar, except English dailies Kashmir Reader and Kashmir Observer, and online portals like The Kashmirwalla, had not adequately reported the death of Ashraf Sehrai.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on May 7 described the COVID-19 situation “alarming” while asking states to release prisoners with the aim to decongest jails in view of the damages inflicted by the virulent second wave of coronavirus.
“The COVID-19 situation is alarming and we have to decongest prisons,” Chief Justice NV Ramana was quoted as saying by Live Law, adding that “orders passed last year will have to be repeated.” In this regard, a high-powered panel in each state has been tasked to determine the class of prisoners who can be released on parole or interim bail. After the COVID-19 outbreak last year, around 45,000 prisoners were released throughout the country following the apex court’s order.
On March 11, 2020, the Ministry of Home Affairs informed the Rajya Sabha that “a total of 7,375 persons were arrested following the revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir on August 5 last year.” According to the MHA, the arrested persons included pro-independence activists, youths with a history of participating in protests, political leaders and activists. These arrests were made from August 5, 2019 to 29 February, 2020.
“All but 451 have been released. Now 451 are in detention. Three hundred and ninety six of them are detained under PSA, while the rest 55 have been arrested under CrPc 107,” the MHA had said in its reply.
The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) contests these figures and says that according to the organisation’s estimates, over 1,000 persons are still kept in various jails.
JKCCS coordinator Khurram Parvez demanded an urgent release of Kashmir’s political prisoners. “Kashmiri prisoners who are under preventive detention in various jails across India should be released urgently. Preventive detention is otherwise a human rights violation but in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, if anything happens to a single prisoner it will be the state’s responsibility.”
Prominent political leaders who are in prison include Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party chief Shabir Shah, Nayeem Khan of National Front, Jammu and Kashmir Muslim League leader Masarat Alam, Hurriyat leaders Altaf Shah, Peer Saifullah, Ayaz Akbar Shahid-ul-Islam and Amir; Jamaat-e-Islami chief Hamid Fayaz and scores of youth and activists.