Of Withering Wait and Worry: Kashmir’s Captive Chronicles

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At a time when jails are being decongested and stringent PSA revoked, many Kashmiri families continue to fear for their captive kin’s safety, as Covid-19 became all pervasive.

Omer Farooq

Since the outbreak of the global pandemic, Shameema from Sopore is continuously suffering from searing stress and high blood pressure.

Behind her troubled state of mind and body is the growing concern for her son, Abdullah Bin Muhammad, who’s languishing in Kotbalwal Jail, Jammu under the charges of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

Shameema has already lost her son, Ibrahim Janwari, in a 2012 gunbattle with troops. And now, her main breadwinner’s detention is taking a huge toll on her health.

Her son was arrested in January 2019 and shifted to Kot Balwal, Jammu.

Amid Covid-19 scare, Shameema is getting worried about the “unhygienic conditions” in the jail.

“My brother is suffering from a stomach ailment and chest disease from so many months now,” said Ubaidullah, Shameema’s youngest son.

“As food quality and mandatory social distancing is not possible in a crowded lockup, my mother frets for her son’s wellbeing.”

A Sister’s Stress

On July 13, 2019, Nazima’s brother, Muhammad Huzaif Bhat, from the Sangrama area of North Kashmir, was slapped with stringent Public Safety Act (PSA) and shifted to Kotbalwal Jail, Jammu.

“As no healthy food is served to Kashmiri captives, my brother has developed a skin problem in prison,” said Nazima. “And since he’s the youngest among siblings, our mother has developed an acute state of depression.”

Huzaif with his parents

Nazima’s captive brother recently sent a word to her from his prison cell.

Everything is good,” he told his sister.

“But,” Nazima said, “he feared that if anyone gets infected in prison, the virus will spread like a wildfire.”

A Father’s Fear

Muhammad Ramzan’s son and the family breadwinner, Imtiyaz, is languishing in Sub Jail Kupwara under PSA since last year. The only son among five sisters, Imtiyaz married an orphan girl in 2018.

“Before imprisoned, he was nursing stomach and occasional fever problems,” Ramzan, a resident of North Kashmir’s Zainageer area, told Kashmir Observer.

After the COVID-19 outbreak, the father got worried about ‘lack of medical facilities in jail’.

“Around 30 captives share a barrack,” the father said. “And this makes the chances of spreading of the virus maximum.”

A Daughter’s Distress

Zafar Ul Islam, a 38-year-old preacher of a local mosque in Sopore continues to be under detention since the abrogation of Article 370. He was slapped with PSA and shifted to Agra where he continues to be imprisoned till now.

Zafar’s old and ailing parents, four daughters and two sons await his homecoming, as many PSA detainees were lately set free.

“We last met him in November 2019,” said Muskan Jan, the detainee’s eldest daughter studying in Class 8.

“Since then, we don’t know anything about him. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the entire family is worried about his health. We want our father back home. He should be immediately released on humanitarian grounds.”

A Wife’s Woe

Shabir Ahmed Wani, a 38-year-old contractual computer operator in Govt. Degree College Sogam is lodged in Lucknow Jail under PSA. He was detained on August 3 2019, and subsequently slapped with PSA.

“He had no involvement of whatsoever. No FIR was against him,” said Wani’s ailing wife. “We got surprised when we were handed a dossier.”

His dossier mentions that he “might incite trouble in his area”.

Wani has a small family including his parents, wife and children.

Shabir Ahmed Wani

“He has disc problem, while his mother is diabetic,” said Wani’s wife, who undergoes dialysis.

“He should be with us, in this terrible time, as he has done nothing wrong to deserve that dungeon.”

A Sibling’s Struggle

On August 4, 2019, Er Rashid, former MLA Langate and chief of Awami Ittehad Party, was summoned by National Investigation Agency (NIA). Since then, he’s under trail.

“He’s a patient, suffers from chest disease,” said Khurshid Ahmed, brother of Er Rashid.

“Last time, when I met him in the court, I gave him medicines prescribed by his doctors, but because of jail rules, he couldn’t take them.”

Now, due to lockdown, Khursheed said, the family is not able to send him monthly expenditure.

“There’s no facility to transfer money to him because of the lockdown,” the sibling continued.

The situation is very tough for Rashid and others in jail due to congestion, Khurshid said.

Er Rashid with his family

“During night he’s kept with 5 to 6 people in a lockup of 10*12 ft,” the sibling said.

“It was safe, if political detainees were kept separate but they’re kept with criminals. Then, there’re employees who frequent their cell. So what is the guarantee?”

A Doctor’s Take

A doctor who happened to visit a sub-jail, a couple of months ago, with a team to examine prisoners, told Kashmir Observer that if somehow the novel coronavirus enters the jail premises, it would prove to be a “bomb because of overcrowding”.

“Furthermore due to lack of nutritious food and psychological stress, most of them [captives] have developed a weak immune system which makes them vulnerable,” he said.

A Judicial Intervention

Keeping the global health crisis in view, the recent Supreme Court order states that the sate/ union territory could consider the release of prisoners who have been convicted or are under trial for offenses for which prescribed punishment is up to seven years or less, “with or without fine and the prisoner has been convicted for a lesser number of years than the maximum”.

An Advocate’s Argument

While reflecting on the SC order, advocate Shafqat Nazir said the high powered committee established on the orders of Supreme Court of India has issued guidelines of the release of a class of prisoners which seems not in congruence with the guidelines of the Supreme Court.

“We have people detained under PSA on the basis of apprehension,” advocate Nazir told Kashmir Observer. “The apex court says to release convicts on parole or bail, and government says we won’t release them.”

In order, he continued, the government guidelines say no one among militancy-related would be released.

“However, SC had issued no such direction,” Nazir said. “Secondly, they excluded people under preventive detentions. People held under sec 107 are to be released.”

This is a sad state of affairs, the advocate argued, that convicted people are to be released and not those under preventive detentions, as if the virus won’t affect the latter.

“They are making a class within the class which is not permissible under law,” he added.

An Academic View

Since the world has not faced the current situation before, therefore nowhere in international law are there specific guidelines related to prisoners under pandemic, said Dr. Sheikh Showkat Hussain, an expert on International Law.

“But yes, there’re guidelines as per Geneva Conventions which include they [prisoners] should be kept in a hygienic atmosphere,” the law professor said.

“A prisoner or detainee does not lose a basic human right to life. Any act by which his life is put to risk should not be justified.”

However, as a result of the near-collapse of the current world order, as argued by Ibrahim Kalin, a special adviser to the President of Turkey, globalization as we know will change in substantial ways.

When asked if the world community would now sit and frame guidelines for prisoners under pandemic, Dr. Hussain told Kashmir Observer, “Maybe, but right now, the situation is chaotic, which has not left the current world-order affected and disturbed. This is the anarchic chaotic situation now.”

An Activist’s Advocacy

Zahoor Wani, a human rights defender working with Amnesty International, said the high-powered committee established on the recent Indian apex court order has excluded preventive detentions.

“But the problem in Kashmir is that most of its cases are preventive and militancy-related ones,” Wani told Kashmir Observer.

And since militancy-related cases are a matter of national security, the rights activist said, they’re very difficult to get released.

“In PSA, you’ve to approach courts which are dysfunctional at the moment, but if government wishes, it can simply revoke the cases, but that is not happening,” Wani said.

A Watchdog Report

Amnesty International India, where Zahoor Wani works as rights activist, recently released a press statement under the title, ‘India Covid-19 Response: Government Must Refrain From Abuse Of Power And Immediately Release All Arbitrarily Detained In J&K’.

As per the statement, 1249 people have been administratively detained i.e. without any charge or trial by the authorities.

At least 251 prisoners were shifted to out of Jammu and Kashmir out of which 23 suffered from a health ailment.

An Official Record

As per the Jammu and Kashmir Department of Prisons, “At present, there are 14 functional prisons which include 2 central jails, 9 district jail, 1 special jail, and 2 sub-jails.”

In its official website, the department mentions, “Against a lodgement capacity of 2830 inmates, the department is accommodating more than 3600 inmates.”

A State’s Response

In a move to decongest various jails across J&K amid COVID-19 scare, the authorities lately decided to release 65 prisoners from jails.

Among the liberated prisoners, 22 were facing the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA).

Director General Prisons (DGP) informed the division bench of J&K High Court about this decision through a written report.

The bench comprised of Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Rajnesh Oswal was hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) through video conferencing regarding the spread of Covid-19.

The DGP informed the court that 22 Public Safety Act detenues, 32 undertrials, nine under trial prisoners falling under section 107,109,151 of the CrPC have been released.

The sanction for parole has been granted to 19 other prisoners. Two prisoners are already on parole.

But while the news has finally brought some smiles to the families of these prisoners, many others continue to wither in wait and worry for their captive wards’ safety in the pandemic.

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