Srinagar: A prisoner jailed under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows detention without a trial for up to two years, has tested positive for the novel coronavirus in Kashmir, raising questions about the health of other PSA prisoners lodged in jails within and beyond Jammu & Kashmir.
The first prisoner to test positive for the COVID-19 virus in J&K is Zahoor Ahmad Bhat of Trehgam, Kupwara, who has been detained under the PSA since 2018.
Sheroz Ahmad, superintendent of Anantnag Jail, said a sample taken from Bhat had been sent for COVID-19 testing on July 6, after he developed a mild fever and cough.
“His report arrived on July 10, showing that he had tested positive for the virus. After this, we took samples of 350 persons, including 200 jail inmates, for COVID-19 testing,” Ahmad told The Wire.
Bhat is the brother of Muhammad Maqbool Bhat, who was hanged in Tihar jail in 1984 and buried there.
Members of Bhat’s family said they had been informed by the jail authorities on Friday morning that he had not been feeling well and had been taken to the district hospital in Anantnag.
“The jail authorities told us over the phone that we could go to the hospital to meet him,” said Bhat’s nephew, Zahid Mazoor Bhat. “When we got there, we were shocked to learn that he had tested positive for COVID-19. We couldn’t meet him because he had been quarantined.”
Bhat’s family had approached the relevant authorities several times in the past two years to seek Zahoor’s release, but to no avail.
“The high court quashed his detention order in 2019, but he was booked again under the PSA to keep him in jail,” said Zahid. “If the government cannot ensure his well-being and safety in jail, they should release him immediately.”
Preventive detention vs the pandemic
When news spread that Zahoor Bhat had been infected with the COVID-19 virus inside the jail, the families of other PSA detainees lodged in jails within and outside Jammu & Kashmir began to worry.
“My brother and cousin have been lodged in jails in Uttar Pradesh jails for the last 11 months,” said Amir Yosouf of Bonabazar, Shopian. “After the COVID-19 outbreak, we submitted representations to the J&K home department, the legal services authority and the prisons department to release them, but they did nothing.”
Vikas Yosouf, Amir’s brother, and his cousin Shahid Mushtaq Bhat have been in the Ambedkar Nagar and Lucknow district jails of UP respectively since August 2019.
According to details gathered by The Wire, nearly 270 PSA detainees, including 30-40 foreigners, are lodged in the jails of J&K and about 90 in the jails of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.
The government lifted PSA charges against more than 150 detainees after the outbreak of the pandemic based on recommendations from security agencies and district police chiefs. But it did not consider temporarily releasing other prisoners jailed under the PSA, even though the Supreme Court had issued guidelines for decongesting jails in view of the pandemic.
A high-level committee constituted by the Jammu & Kashmir government on a directive from the Supreme Court maintained that the release of detainees under the PSA did not fall within the terms of the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court to decongest jails.
The panel, headed by Justice Rajesh Bindal, executive chairman of the State Legal Services Authority, made this observation after the chief justice of the J&K High Court referred a representation to it for the release of a detainee.
This is despite the fact that the PSA law empowers the government to temporarily release detainees with or without conditions.
“The Government may at any time order that a person detained in pursuance of detention order may be released for any specified period either without conditions or upon such conditions specified in the direction as that person accepts and may at any time cancel his release,” reads sub-section (1) of section 20 of the Public Safety Act.
However, the panel considered the parole and temporary release of convicts and under-trials involved in crimes with a punishment of less than seven years’ imprisonment.
High court advocate Shafqat Nazir said PSA detainees have been denied the benefit of the Supreme Court order for decongesting prisons after the outbreak of COVID-19 in India.
“Taking note of prisoners being prone to infection from the COVID-19 virus, the Supreme Court in its wisdom directed the release of various persons from jails, including those convicted for offences carrying a punishment of up to seven years’ imprisonment,” Nazir told The Wire.
“There are hundreds of persons from Kashmir detained under the draconian J&K Public Safety Act merely on the basis of suspicion that they may commit any act prejudicial to the public order or security of the state. A person can be detained for a maximum period of one year if his alleged activities are against public order and for a maximum of two years in case of security of the state. All such persons have been denied the benefit of the Supreme Court order on the grounds that there is no specific mention of persons detained under preventive detention laws. This is against the very spirit of the Supreme Court order.”
Jails in J&K are overcrowded
According to details gathered by The Wire, the occupancy in the jails of J&K at this time is 12% more than their capacity. J&K’s 14 jails house 3,628 inmates against an overall capacity of 3,234.
This is below the national average, said V.K. Singh, director general, prisons, J&K. “It is a fact that we have the capacity to lodge 3,234 prisoners in our jails, but presently our occupancy is above 3,600,” he said.
He said the department had been taking precautions from March this year to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in jails.
“All new inmates are tested before they are lodged in the jails,” Singh said. “We also take their temperature on a daily basis. Anyone showing an abnormal temperature is tested for the COVID-19 virus.”