Dozens are being arrested under the Public Safety Act in Kashmir and shifted to jails inaccessible to their families.
Srinagar: After spending two weeks at his in-laws place in South Kashmir’s Tral area, 28-year-old Bilal Ahmad Sheikh, a shoe polisher, returned to his one-room home in Anantnag on September 1. He had to take his two-year-old sick son to a hospital in Srinagar the next morning. Asleep with his son, who had a milk bottle lying next to him, Sheikh woke up at 2 am to someone calling his name from the small courtyard. He opened the door and it was a Special Task Force (STF) team from the Jammu and Kashmir police. By now his wife, son and four-month-old daughter had woken up and from the adjacent house his grandfather, brother and sister had come out as well.
The STF men barged into the room to take him away. His wife tried to resist and she was beaten up says his younger brother Danish Sheikh. As the chaos grew, Danish said he asked the men, “Why are you taking him away?” The question led to him being beaten up and taken away too. “For next one week, I was detained at the Sadar police station in Anantnag,” claimed Danish. “Sheikh was also taken to the same police station and kept for an equal duration.”
“We went to the local superintendent of police and pleaded with him to release Bilal, but he said that they will release him tomorrow,” said Mohammad Shaban Sheikh, his grandfather. “Next day, when we took tea for him in the morning, we were told that he has been taken to Jammu jail after being booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA). The deputy superintendent of police, Anantnag, Liyaqat Ali Khan told us that Bilal was a stone thrower.”
Police officer Liyaqat Khan, denies any such incident has happened under his jurisdiction. “This is absolutely wrong,” he said. “When we take someone in custody we become custodians of their life. Torture has never happened. Neither it has happened ever nor it will happen. These are only baseless allegations. If there is any small complain proved then I am ready to face any consequences.”
Sheikh is one of the many civilians arrested by the police in the ongoing uprising that started on July 8, following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. The two months long protests saw more than 80 civilians killed and nearly 13,000 people injured by the government’s firing of pellets, tear-gas shells and bullets. In many incidents of stone throwing, hundreds of police and security forces have been injured – the government puts the figure at 4,000 – and many government structures were burnt. To quell protests, the government has now adopted even tougher measures, arresting thousands of people, with many being booked under the draconian PSA. As per government records 6,000 people have been detained under preventive custody and more than 400 have been booked under the PSA.
One of the prominent detentions under the PSA is the arrest of 39-year-old prominent human rights defender, Khurram Parvez. First, he was first detained at the Delhi airport to stop him from boarding a flight to Geneva where he was representing his organisation – Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. Then on September 15, the police arrested him from his home in Srinagar and a week later, he was shifted to Kotbalwal jail in Jammu, detained under the PSA – the very act that Parvez had campaigned against as an activist.
A campaign has been launched to demand his release, along with the many others arrested under the law. The government, though, is making more arrests under the PSA, which Amnesty International has called “a lawless law”.
The family says that no one has been allowed to meet Parvez in the jail. The executive director of Amnesty International India said, “Preventing a well-known activist from traveling abroad for human rights advocacy and then locking him up on spurious grounds is a shameful attempt to suppress a peaceful dissenting voice from Kashmir…Khurram Parvez has a right to raise these important human rights concerns abroad, but his attempt to exercise this right is now being painted as an imminent crime.”
A vicious cycle
Continuing the cycle of arrests, two days after the Eid, on September 16, paramilitary forces and the police in Pampore arrested 19-year-old Younis Ahmed Khan, when he was out distributing sacrificial meat to his relatives. His cousin, who said that he and Khan had gotten caught in a protest that had been going on in the area, had managed to escape on the scooter, but Khan couldn’t.
“It was around 7 pm that we got to know about this,” said Naseer Ahmed, his father, who works as a mason. “We have talked to a lawyer and he has assured us he will be out from jail soon. He has an exam coming up that he had failed last year.”
Now imprisoned at the Kotbalwal jail in Jammu, Khan was studying in class 10 and worked as an electrician to support his family of five – his parents, an older brother and a sister.
“He has never been arrested before and nor has he been in trouble with the police,” said Kulsum, his mother. “They have moved him to Jammu, I can’t even go there to see if he is doing alright. I went to see him at the police station before he was taken to Kotbalwal. There were hundreds of boys in the bus being taken to Jammu. I asked him if he was fine, he said yes, but he looked scared.”
Unlike Khan, many have been tortured before they were sent to jail. Before being taken to a jail in the Kathua district of Jammu, Sheikh was tortured at the police station, said his family.
“His thighs were burnt by a hot iron,” said Mohammad Shaban, Sheikh’s grandfather. “It was all burnt. Linens were tied around his thighs when we met him. We fought with the police [and] told them to get a doctor. Liyaqat [the deputy superintendent] told Bilal that they [the police] didn’t burn his thighs but Bilal replied that police did it.”
Seventeen-year-old Tanveer Ahmad Bhat was arrested on August 16, near KP road in Anantnag, at around 6 pm when he tried to hide himself from the police after seeing a group of people running away. Back at his home in Krangsoo – a nearby village, a neighbour informed his family.
“We went to Mattan police station and the SHO [station house officer] abused us,” said 45-year-old Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, his father. “We saw him in the lock up but he wasn’t able to talk. He was beaten up. His whole body was covered with blood and blue marks. Police didn’t open the lock up despite our pleas to see him. Next day he was taken to JIC [joint interrogation centre] and kept for over a week. But the JIC incharge had told the local SSP ‘what have you brought here – a dead body.’ It was then only when he was taken to a doctor,” his father said.
On August 25, Bhat was taken to Kathua jail. In the PSA dossier, a copy of which is with this reporter, the police claim that he is 21-years-old and a regular stone thrower. The dossier reads:
“A sufficient reasonable inference can be drawn from the nefarious/criminal activities of the subject that he is deeply involved as a prominent member of unruly mob, causing severe breach of peace and tranquility and disturbed the public order of Mattan town by rampaging the public property and also caused injuries to security/police personnel who were executing their law full duty.” As three cases have been mentioned in the dossier under several acts, it also says that Bhat “indulges himself in such activities which creates feeling of insecurity, pain and fair in the minds of general public this upsetting tempo of life of the community.”
Easier for the rich, difficult for the poor
At their under constructed three-room house, sitting in a room against the un-plastered brick walls, Manzoor, Tanveer’s father, says that he and his wife left at 6 am on September 7 to travel to the Kathua jail – 330 kilometers away from Srinagar. “We went in our own car as I had never been to Kathua before,” said Manzoor, glancing at the tarpaulin sheet that covers the room instead of a ceiling. “Tanveer said that he has pain in his back. He still had marks of wounds. We took him clothes and a dozen bananas. He told me, ‘papa, get me out of here and tell brother not to go out.’ We spent 8,000 rupees for this one visit and are not sure if we can afford to meet him again at the jail.”
As it gets dark, the tungsten light strikes the oddly cut cloth sheets nailed on windows. Tanveer’s older brother works as labourer. His father used to embroider shawls, but only till he suffered spinal disc. The family believes that rich people’s children get released by bribing the officials, but no one cares about the poor.
On entering a corridor like space, Bilal was waiting behind the bars. “We couldn’t even hug each other. He told me to bring his son.” For two days Shaban didn’t eat anything to save money for the fare. “It cost me 3,000 rupees to visit him,” he said.
“There were people from all over Kashmir,” said Shaban. “There was one boy from Pulwama who was released but he had no money to go home. So, some of us visitors from Kashmir contributed and helped him. We brought him back to Kashmir – back to home, along with us.”