Human Rights

‘Shift Them to Kashmir Jails’: Chorus grows as COVID turns terminal

Families of Kashmiri prisoners lodged in different Indian jails are pleading the government with their amplified social media appeals to either shift inmates to Kashmiri jails or release them on parole.

Top Hurriyat leader’s death in detention is making 23-year-old Shazia anxious about her incarcerated brother’s health.

Her 28-year-old sibling, Showkat Tantary from Deachpora area of South Kashmir’s Kulgam, is imprisoned in Agra Jail under the Public Safety Act (PSA) — a “lawless law” allowing detention up to two years without charge, or trial.

Showkat was rounded off in a sweeping crackdown on August 5, 2019, when New Delhi abrogated the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir.

“My brother tested positive for coronavirus during the first Covid wave,” said Shazia, struggling to speak.

“He recovered after 15 days, but this second wave is more fatal. It’s killing young people. He recently called and told us that there’s no testing or vaccination facility in the jail.”

When the same prison call rang Rashid Ashraf’s cellphone lately, he expected his captive father on the other side of the phone.

But instead spoke a harsh voice, breaking the long-feared news: “Do not worry about the old man. For precautionary measures, we’ve decided to take him to GMC, Jammu.”

The “old man” was Mohammad Ashraf Khan Sehrai — the veteran Kashmiri politician gasping for days on the knolls of Udhampur Jail.

Shortly, after his emergency hospital shift, the jailed Kashmiri leader and Tehreek-e-Hurriyat chief passed away on May 5, triggering emotional outbursts and tributes in the valley.

Posthumously, and officially, Sehrai, 76, was declared Covid-19 positive. His health, according to the prison officials, had started deteriorating some days ago when he developed serious breathing problems.

“He called us 10 days ago and said that he was not able to walk properly due to weakness, and was fainting quite frequently in his cell,” Rashid Ashraf, Sehrai’s son, told Free Press Kashmir.

“He had multiple dysfunctions. The family had repeatedly sent essential medicines but they never reached him.”

Sehrai had Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) – which means kidney failure. In medical methodology, if a CKD patient misses a dose, the rising creatinine level increases the need for dialysis.

Without dialysis, toxins and wastes build up in the blood, causing a condition called Uremia. Depending on how quickly the toxins build up, impermanence follows.

“It’s a pre-planned murder,” Rashid said. “How can the authorities be so negligent that not a single doctor could medicate my father for 10 days? Only when his health worsened to an extreme level, the jail authorities called us.”

Sehrai was booked under PSA last year and imprisoned in a Jammu jail.

“He was mostly kept isolated,” Rashid added. “We just met him once and that too some 6 months ago. During that meeting, we spoke over phone seeing him through a soundproof glass partition. He looked tough but the harsh prison had hit his health.”

After Sehrai’s sudden demise, the demand—“bring them home”—started echoing in the valley again.

Like him, said Mehbooba Mufti, countless political prisoners and other detainees from J&K continue to be jailed purely for their ideologies and thought process.

“In today’s India,” the former JK chief minister urging premier Narendra Modi to release all the Kashmiri detainees lodged in various jails of India on humanitarian grounds said, “one pays a price with his life for dissent.”

Earlier, as the second virulent wave invaded Indian prisons and infected many Kashmiri prisoners, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association (JKHCBA) urged the Government of India to either shift Kashmiri prisoners from outside to the nearest jails in Kashmir or release them on parole.

“Due to Covid, nobody is allowed to review the situation in these jails and the most relevant example I can cite here – over the vulnerability of the situation – is the death of Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai,” advocate Mudasir Dar, executive member of JKHCBA told FPK.

“Despite urging the government repeatedly, we did not have any response till date. The government had assured earlier that they will take adequate measures to jab the prisoners but unfortunately that has also not happened.”

But now, as the cases are steadily surging, the plight of prisoners is giving sleepless nights to their families back home.

Lately, when former cop-turned-Hurriyat activist, Imtiyaz Hyder, called his son Asrar Safvi from Amphalla jail, his family became restless.

“He told me that the authorities were shifting him to Haryana Jail amid this Covid crisis,” Safvi, 21, said. “We fear for his life during these trying times.”

Detained under PSA since March 2020, 49-year-old Hyder comes from Central Kashmir’s Budgam district and is known for his ‘proximity with Hyderpora’.

“We’re repeatedly requesting Divisional commissioners, DSPs, SSPs to shift my father to any Kashmir Jail, but no one is responding to our miserable pleas,” Safvi lamented.

On the other side, Mohammad Maqbool’s impaired life comes to a standstill whenever his son, Huzair Maqbool, a class 10 student from south Kashmir’s Shopain town, calls him from Agra Jail.

“He called a week ago,” Maqbool said. “In an anxious voice, he told me that he fears vaccination might kill him. But I advised him to get the shot whenever the prison authorities make it available for the inmates.”

Ever since he was arrested under PSA on August 5, 2019, Huzair’s family has been frequenting Agra jail to see their son’s face.

“Every time we meet, his tearful eyes tear my heart out,” Maqbool said. “I crave to see my son’s face again, but this Covid has stopped those meetings for now.”

Placing Kashmiri prisoners in different jails of India like Agra, Barelvi, Tihar, etc have created hassles for their families. Most of them can’t afford long-distance travel and bear the hostile weather.

Most of these prisoners would earlier remain confined in the J&K jails only, said law professor Sheikh Showkat.

“But things changed after August 5, 2019.”

However, according to the law, there’s no impediment to bring back all these prisoners to Kashmir jails, he said.

“In 2010, Syed Ali Geelani was lodged in Chashma Shahi. And the way Covid centres are being created to tackle the emergency situation, the administration can create special jails to shift the Kashmiri prisoners back in the valley.”

But the absence of such welfare mechanism is only giving hard time to the families of these prisoners. Among them is Imtiyaz, fearing for his imprisoned brother’s life these days.

Imtiyaz’s sibling, Sheraaz Ahmad, a 31-year-old pharmaceutical distributor from Batamuran area of South Kashmir’s Shopian, was booked under PSA on August 8, 2019.

“He recently called from Agra Jail and said he’s not keeping well,” Imtiyaz said. “The jail canteen has been closed due to the growing number of Covid cases there, but Kashmiri prisoners are yet to be vaccinated. Even during these distressing times, there’re no protocols for the family to call their inmates and know their condition.”

Sheraaz, Imtiyaz said, was lately beaten along with other Kashmiri prisoners for demanding a phone call.

“I believe they’re not letting them talk because they want to put them in harm’s way,” Imtiyaz said.

Meanwhile, at Deachpora Kulgam, young Shazia is trying to put up a face and fight with her trembling heart.

“There seems no hope,” Shazia said in a whimpering voice.

“Since August 5, 2019, our patience is contending against the time. My mother takes 3 tablets to remain sane. I hope they send my brother back home soon, and end our constant state of anxiety which is only killing us slowly.”


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