Mumbai: On November 25, around 4:45 pm, Mohammad Suhail Shaikh received an unexpected phone call from the Nashik central prison. It was his brother Mohammad Zuber Qasam Shaikh, who had not called for weeks. He was calling to say that his life was in danger. Zuber, a 49-year-old convicted prisoner, is one of the six prime witnesses to the alleged torture of a 31-year-old convicted prisoner, Asghar Ali Mansoori, who subsequently died by suicide inside the prison on October 7.
In a call that lasted a little over 90 seconds, Zuber informed that his co-prisoner Mustufa Yunus Khan was allegedly mercilessly beaten up on November 24. “They beat up Yunus. He is in a terrible state. They are trying to kill us all,” he repeatedly told Suhail during the phone conversation, further asking the family to immediately move the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) and the Bombay high court.
Mansoori, a life convict who had spent a little over 14 years in jail, killed himself, allegedly to escape the mental and physical torture at the hands of jail officials. Before killing himself, Mansoori wrapped a two-page, detailed suicide note in a polythene bag and swallowed it. In his suicide note, Mansoori had named five prison officials, including a senior jailor, as among those who ‘tortured’ him.
Mansoori’s sufferings were well-known in the prison. After his death, six co-prisoners (of whome one person has been released since), had sent letters to the chief justice of the Bombay high court, senior prison authorities and the Nashik district judge seeking their immediate intervention. These six incarcerated persons had expressed willingness to record statements corroborating Mansoori’s claims before a magistrate under section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). Statements recorded before a magistrate cannot be retracted and are considered as strong evidence. The prisoners feared for their lives and sought immediate protection. Despite this apparent threat, the six prisoners wanted to stick to their statements.
However, their letters did not make any difference. The jail authorities have continued to ignore their plea and in fact, the accused officials still continue to serve in the same prison and have had direct access to each of these convicted persons all along.
Zuber’s family anxious
Zuber’s call, Suhail says, has made his entire family anxious. “Bhai (Zuber) has spent over a decade and a half in jail. We have never heard him so tense. His voice was quivering, he somehow wanted me to save him and the other convicts,” Suhail says. Following the call, Zuber’s family immediately sent an email petition to chief minister Uddhav Thackeray’s office, along with a copy to principal secretary (home) Vineet Agarwal. Suhail said he is in the process of drafting a complaint to the SHRC and the high court.
The Wire is disclosing Zuber’s identity on the insistence of his family. “He is anyway under severe threat. We want to ensure that he and his co-prisoners are saved. We decided to go public only after weighing our options. We really have none,” Suhail told The Wire. Copies of the letters that Zuber had written in the past are with The Wire.
Suhail says that while Zuber was forcibly confined to the jail’s hospital ward, the four other co-convicts who supported Mansoori’s claims were moved to one cell and thrashed ‘mercilessly’ on different occasions. Suhail has recorded his phone call with Zuber and will submit it to the SHRC and the Bombay high court along with his complaint.
“On November 24, following the court’s order, a policeman had visited the prison to record statements. When we decided to stick to what we had seen and narrated what led to Mansoori’s death as is, the jail officials lost their minds. A day later, one of the jail officials (name mentioned in the call but withheld) who was on a day leave came to the prison and beat up Khan. Few other constables also joined him,” Zubair can be heard in the phone call that Suhail recorded. The recording has been accessed by The Wire.
Jail official confirms allegation
A jail official also confirmed that Khan was taken to a two-storey office tower and badly thrashed. “His eyes, mouth and back are badly injured. He is in urgent need of medical care,” a jail official told The Wire. The official said that Khan, who is a jail warder and is responsible for 60-70 prisoners, was targeted over a ‘frivolous reason’. “They (accused jail officials) have been waiting for an opportunity to hurt them. That day, Khan had walked into a space that is a little farther away from his ward. It is a common thing for warders, as they are responsible for the entire ward’s work. The jail officials used this as an excuse and thrashed him,” a jail source said, further adding that Khan has been denied permission to speak to his family members for close to a month.
This is not the first time that witnesses have complained of ill-treatment and expressed fear for their lives while in jail. The magnitude of Mansoori’s sufferings and eventual death were first highlighted by these convicted prisoners in their elaborate letters. The letters, smuggled out through a released prisoner, had narrated the entire event and accused specific prison officials of corruption and ill-treatment of prisoners.
A few weeks later, another letter that was jointly signed by all the five prisoners sought immediate help. “We have been continuously tortured by the jail officials. We aren’t willing to withdraw our statements, so the jail officials can go to any extent… can get us killed,” they stated in their second letter, making a fresh call for action.
While the prisoners have been vocal about their hardship and the continuous torture meted out to them, the prison department has ignored the alleged wrongdoings of the authorities. Soon after Mansoori’s death was reported by The Wire and his family insisted that an FIR should be registered against the accused officials, Maharashtra’s additional director general of police (prison and correctional services) Sunil Ramanand had directed the special inspector general of police (prisons) to conduct an inquiry to ascertain if there were any “departmental lapses”. This inquiry, however, was conducted without either suspending or at the least moving the accused prison officials to another prison.
It is unclear if the inquiry has been concluded. The Wire made several attempts to reach both Ramanand and Dorje for their comments but did not get any. The story will be updated as and when they respond. Almost two months after Mansoori’s death, no FIR has been registered against the accused prison officials.
Meanwhile, Mansoori’s family has moved a petition before the Bombay high court seeking a judicial inquiry into the incident. The case is yet to come up for hearing.