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COVID-19: Panic Among Prisoners Lodged in J&K’s ‘Overcrowded’ Jails

‘We are worried because of the situation inside the jails. There is congestion and medical facilities are not adequate. Besides, inmates are transferred from different jails which is a great risk,’ said Zahid’s son Mudasir.
Jails in Kashmir

Image Used for Representational Purpose Only/ Credit: Greater Kashmir

Srinagar: With not much room for social distancing and many among them already showing symptoms like respiratory disorders, prisoners at Central Jail Kotbhalwal in Jammu fear a COVID-19 outbreak inside the jails of Jammu and Kashmir. 

Inmates lodged at Kotbhalwal have shot across a series of letters to authorities and a human rights group in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak which has killed over 80,000 people worldwide and led to an unprecedented global crisis. 

In a letter dated March 23, the inmates urged the Chief Justice of the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir to temporarily release inmates and grant general amnesty for convicts who have spent majority of their lives in custody. Highlighting the lack of adequate medical facilities inside jail premises, the inmates claimed they are more vulnerable as many among them are already suffering from various ailments. 

“It is known to all that the jails in J&K lack the emergency equipment and medical facilities required even in normal conditions, much less the tool and efficient staff required for the prevention and cure of the dreaded viral disease,” the letter said.   

The inmates complained that the medical staff in the jails have not been of much help even in dealing with usual medical conditions. “How can such an incompetent and insufficient staff be able to prove of any help in such a crucial situation, if god forbid, the viral disease COVID-19 breaks out in any jail,” the letter added. 

The detainees, under-trials and convicts also highlighted the fear among the inmates as many lodged in the jail are already suffering from ailments like common cold, headache and respiratory disorders. “It has caused panic among the inmates as there is no apparent mechanism available to distinguish between these common ailments and COVID-19,” the inmates said. 

The government has ordered for the release of dozens of detainees from different jails in Kashmir, including from the Srinagar and Jammu central jails after the Union Territory of J&K saw an increase in the number of affected cases. Earlier on Monday, authorities quashed charges filed under the PSA  18 persons and later revoked the Public Safety Act (PSA) for five more detainees. 

Mudasir, a resident of Nihama in Pulwama, however, said that while the PSA case against his father was quashed earlier on March 3, he continues to remain in detention due to another case from 2008. 

Mudasir’s father, advocate Zahid Ali, is the spokesperson of the socio-political organisation Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), an outfit which was banned in February last year, and is among the detainees currently lodged in Jammu central jail. 

“We are worried because of the situation inside the jails. There is congestion and medical facilities are not adequate. Besides, inmates are transferred from different jails which is a great risk,” he said.  

So far, three people have died in Kashmir after contracting COVID-19, and as many as 125 persons have been confirmed positive of which 118 are active cases.

In another letter to the Director General of Police, Department of Prisons dated March 31, advocate Zahid made an appeal on behalf of the prisoners to the official seeking his intervention. Zahid advocated for the release of detainees on compassionate grounds. “This is a testing time when every human soul should think above the limits of region and religion, colour and creed,” the inmates said. 

Earlier, on March 23, Member of Parliament Hasnain Masoodi sent a letter to Home Minister Amit Shah urging him to revoke detention orders against people detained in jails within and outside Kashmir. 

Soon after she was transferred to her Gupkar residence turned sub-jail, former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti on Wednesday also urged the government to release all detainees including political leadership jailed in and outside J&K. "All Kashmiris illegally detained since 5th August deserve freedom. Their continued incarceration even in times of a global pandemic undermines our democratic credentials. Nevertheless, I’d like to thank everyone for their support & good wishes," Mufti's daughter Iltija tweeted from her mother's profile.

In response to Mehbooba Mufti's transfer, J&K People's Movement, led by bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Faesal, also called for his release. Faesal was among the political leaders jailed in the aftermath of Article 370 abrogation. "Building trust with people is essential in fighting this huge COVID-19 pandemic. In the wake of this pandemic, government must unconditionally release all political prisoners being held in various jails inside and outside J&K," said an official statement. 

In their letter dated April 7 to rights body Amnesty International, the inmates of Jammu central jail said nothing has been done to maintain social distancing inside the jail and that there was "acute overcrowding". 

Highlighting the lack of adequate facilities inside jails, the inmates added that "there is no proper system of sanitisation in the jail keeping the unhygienic conditions in view and if only one inmate gets infected there will be an uncontrollable outbreak."

The latest report by Amnesty said there are as many as 44 inmates above the age of 60 and about 73 inmates between 51 to 60 years lodged in different jails in the region. Over 200 inmates from Kashmir valley have been lodged in different jails in Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh since August. More than 80 inmates are held in Agra jail alone while as many as 23 people have suffered from ailments since they were detained in August last year with the abrogation of Article 370 in the region. 

“A public health emergency is not an opportunity to bypass accountability.  Continuing use of unlawful and arbitrary detention along with limited internet connectivity and medical facilities only add to the panic, fear and anxiety caused by COVID-19. The people of Jammu & Kashmir are entitled to live with dignity and be informed of the threats that COVID-19 pose to their health. Measures must be taken to protect people’s human rights in the region of Jammu & Kashmir and not further weaken them,” Amnesty's Avinash Kumar said in the report.

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