Jailed Dissident Dies of COVID, Sons Sent to Jail for Protesting and Get COVID Too
Just like their father, both sons of a deceased political prisoner have now tested positive for the virus in one of India’s overcrowded, superspreader jails.
INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR—Seventeen-year-old Ishraque Khalid will never forget the pitch dark night of May 6, when he carried the body of his dead grandfather over his shoulders. His grandfather, Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai, a prominent politician from Indian-administered Kashmir, died of COVID while he was detained by the Indian government under a draconian law called the Public Safety Act (PSA) that allows detentions without trial for up to a year.
That night, as memories of his grandfather flashed through his head while carrying his corpse to the graveyard, he thought the worst was perhaps over. But little did he know that a week later, two of his uncles—his grandfather’s sons—would be arrested by Indian police for raising “anti-national” slogans at their father’s funeral site. And just like him, both sons have now contracted the virus in jail.
As India continues to struggle with a devastating second wave of the coronavirus pandemic that has led to the death of more than 150,000 people, scores of political prisoners—many of them elderly and jailed under stringent charges from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government—continue to languish in jails, despite outrage from human rights groups.
“It is mayhem,” Khalid told The Daily Beast. “First my grandfather was killed in custody. He asked every day for medical help but was denied. Now, two of his sons have been arrested on frivolous charges. The entire family is in a disarray.”
According to Khalid, his grandfather Sehrai—who had been the president of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, a political group at the forefront of efforts to end India’s rule in Kashmir—was denied basic care in detention because he held political views that were critical of the Indian state.
“My grandfather was taken to jail in July last year. He wasn't allowed to call us for eight months, then after several requests, he was allowed to call once every week. Last month, he would call and complain to us that he was not feeling well. The jail authorities did nothing and even when they did it was too late.”
Sehrai had been locked inside a regional jail in Udhampur district, some 150 miles away from his home in the Kashmir valley, and took his last breath in a local hospital, with none of his family members present at the time of his death. His two sons, who later attended the funeral, are now charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), a stringent anti-terror law that allows the government to proscribe individuals as “terrorists” and detain them for months without any charges.
“When a family tries to participate in the funeral, even that right is snatched. There is no dignity in death also,” Gowhar Geelani, a prominent journalist from the region, told The Daily Beast. “This is the broader line. There are repercussions for every expression. Thinking has been criminalized, mourning has been criminalized, praying has been criminalized, and there is a larger criminalization of the entire political space.”
Fearing an outbreak of prison infections, activists and health experts in India have been demanding the release of political prisoners and calling for the need to decongest prisons due the risk posed to inmates and jail staff by the rapid spread of COVID in the country.
Prisons in India are already overcrowded and understaffed, lodging 20 percent more prisoners than actual capacity, as per data reported by India's National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in 2019. With little or no access to basic health care in cramped jails, political prisoners—many of whom are still awaiting trial—have been left susceptible to infection.
“A number of people have already tested positive which underscores the risk to those in detention,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Beast. “Every person held without legal basis, and particularly those who are detained only because they peacefully opposed state policies, should be released. In addition, Indian authorities should dismiss all charges against rights activists, and release all those detained immediately and unconditionally.”
The grueling condition of Indian jails has left many political prisoners in life-threatening conditions. Fifty-five-year-old academician Hany Babu, who has been jailed by the current ruling dispensation for “conspiring against the government,” complained of an acute eye infection on May 3 after contracting the virus in jail, which led to a gradual loss of his vision. For more than a week, prison authorities ignored his complaints, according to his family members. His wife, Jenny Rowena, had to file a petition in court in a bid to get medical attention for him.
“We could have lost the eye if the court didn’t intervene on time. He was under critical care for 12 days. It would have spread to the brain as well. I don’t know what the government is thinking. There seems to be no accountability," Rowena told The Daily Beast.
“All three doctors in the jail are Ayurvedic [follow the traditional Hindu system of medicine] doctors and they prescribe… sleeping pills and paracetamol for everything. It is an inhumane condition. He is lodged in a cramped barrack. He would rub his shoulder to the next person when he sleeps,” Rowena added.
Babu, who is a professor at the University of Delhi, was arrested last July for allegedly giving an inflammatory speech at a 2017 conclave held in the city of Pune city in the western state of Maharashtra. Authorities claimed her speech had sparked violence in nearby villages the next day. Several other prominent Indian academics, human rights campaigners, and social activists like Sudha Bharadwaj, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Stan Swamy, and Varavara Rao continue to languish in different jails across the country on similar charges.
Dozens of young Muslim activists—including Sharjeel Imam, Khalid Saifi and Umer Khalid—are also imprisoned for speaking out against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by the Modi government in 2019. The controversial law expedites the process of obtaining citizenship for minorities from three neighbouring countries, but excludes Muslims.
The Indian Supreme court, taking cognizance of the COVID situation, had given permission to release prisoners, except those charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. But the vast majority of political prisoners in the country are charged under that act.
“I think our legal system has failed here,” Indira Jaising, a veteran human rights lawyer and a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India, told The Daily Beast.
“The problem is the government treats these political prisoners as terrorists. I would argue that even terrorists have the right for proper care, given the situation,” she said. “I don’t mean these are terrorists, but even if you have a terrorist in your custody, you are obliged to follow some guidelines. There are laws and regulations to be upheld, but unfortunately that is not being done.”