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SC Allows Conditional Release of 'Declared Foreigners' Detained for More Than 2 Years

Keeping the COVID-19 crisis in mind, the Supreme Court has diluted the terms of conditional release of people held in Assam's detention centres.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court has diluted the terms for the conditional release of ‘declared foreigners’ who are lodged in six camps in Assam. Earlier, the detainees were required to have been held for three years to be eligible for conditional release, which has now been reduced to two.

The apex court order, passed on April 13, was in response to a petition by Raju Bala Das, who has been lodged in one of the camps for over two years. She had expressed apprehension about overcrowding in the jails and lack of facilities at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and sought release on bail.

The Supreme Court’s order also relaxed another condition, saying detainees will have to produce two sureties worth Rs 5,000 each. The earlier condition required detainees to provide two sureties worth Rs 1 lakh each.

This past March 23, the court had taken suo moto cognisance of overcrowding in jails in the light of the COVID-19 scare and had asked the state governments to release on bail or parole prisoners and convicts who have not been arrested for committing serious crimes and have not been sentenced more than seven years.

On March 25, Justice and Liberty Initiative (JLI), a civil society group, had also sought a modification of the Supreme Court’s May 2019 order for the release of the ‘declared foreigners’ from the state’s six detention camps located inside district jails of Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Jorhat, Silchar, Dibrugarh and Tezpur. Aside from other conditions, such as production of two sureties worth Rs 1 lakh each and a bond, the court had ruled then that the person must also complete three years in detention in order to be eligible for release on bail.

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The JLI had written a 12-page letter to Chief Justice of India (CJI) S.A. Bobde, seeking his intervention in the matter on humanitarian grounds. It had sought the immediate release of the detainees while keeping the other conditions intact.

A three-member bench led by the CJI had heard the matter on April 7 and sought responses from both the Central and state governments.

According to a Bar and Bench report, the top court heard the matter on Monday again video conferencing due to the ongoing lockdown. In its ruling, it reduced the period of detention from three years to two years to be able to file a bail application.

The advocate appearing for the Assam government argued that those held in detention centres “have been convicted and held guilty of illegally entering. They are not eligible for release”. Attorney general K.K. Venugopal also submitted that if an infected person is released, they could infect others, according to Bar and Bench.

Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing for the National Forum for Prison Reforms, said that the detainees could be checked for any symptoms before they are released.

The report said that the CJI had also asked how the state would look at the possibility that some of the ‘declared foreigners’ could disappear. Gonsalves reportedly said, “They are not foreigners in real sense. (They have been) living here for five decades but they don’t have papers to show.”

According to the Central government, there are as many as 802 persons lodged in the state’s detention camps. Assam has so far confirmed 31 cases of COVID-19 and one death.