Srinagar: On January 24, 2012, 25-year-old Sajad Ahmad Dar of Sopore, who had a firearm injury in the head, was detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA) and subsequently lodged at the district jail Kupwara. Two months later, he died at Kashmir’s lone tertiary-care health institution – Sheri Kashmir Institute of Medical Science (SKIMS), Soura – a few hours after being brought there for treatment.
Dar’s family blamed the jail authorities for his death, saying they failed to provide him with medical assistance on time. The death was followed by massive protests and a shutdown in Sopore town, prompting the government to order a probe into the family’s allegations. The probe vindicated his family’s claims that medical staff and the jail authorities were negligent in providing prompt medical care.
Nine years down the line, authorities in Jammu and Kashmir continue to face questions about the quality of medical care being provided to detainees lodged in the union territory’s jails. The family of veteran separatist leader Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai, who breathed his last at a hospital in Jammu on May 5 after being shifted there from district jail Udhampur, has accused the authorities of denying him medical treatment in prison.
Seventy-seven-year-old Sehrai was chairman of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, an influential separatist group.
His family told The Wire that he was suffering from multiple ailments for the past 15 years and medical tests were conducted every three months in the earlier period of his detention. “But he was not provided any such medical facility after he was lodged in Udhampur jail last year. He was never brought out of the jail for treatment or medical examination in the past 10 months,” his son, Mujahid Sehrai, said.
According to him, his father told them several times over the phone from the jail that he was not feeling well. “We approached a court for providing him medical treatment but it did not pass any direction yet,” he said, adding that the jail authorities shifted him to the hospital on May 4 only after his condition worsened.
Sehrai was declared COVID-19 positive after his death.
His death is one more addition to the list of Kashmiris who died while while detained under the PSA – a law under which a district magistrate can detain a person on his/her subjective satisfaction that the person is likely to act prejudicially to the security of the state or public order.
Four Kashmiris have died under similar circumstances in the past nine years. The deaths have also raised questions about the detention of ailing and aged persons under the PSA, which has been described as a “lawless law” by Amnesty International, a London-based rights group.
In July 2018, 70-year-old PSA detainee Ghulam Hassan Malik alias Noor Khan of Gulistan, Narvaw, Baramulla died at a hospital in Jammu after being shifted there from Kotbhalwal jail.
“My father was not provided proper medical care by the jail authorities after he fell ill. They (jail authorities) dumped him in the hospital only when they realised that he would not survive. The jail inmates told us that he was pleading with the authorities to provide him treatment but they did not even go near to him,” says his son Irshad Ahmad, a driver.
Malik was a former militant commander of the Jammu and Kashmir Students Liberation Front(JKSLF). In 1993, he rescued Major (retd) G.S. Gothra, chief engineer of the Uri hydroelectric project, who was abducted by militants.
After Malik’s death, several Kashmir-based groups accused the authorities of putting the lives of Kashmiri prisoners in danger by denying them basic medical health facilities guaranteed under jail manuals.
The Kashmir High Court Bar Association demanded that a probe should be held to ascertain how and under what circumstances the death took place in the hospital.
In December 2019, 66-year-old Ghulam Muhammad Bhat, a member of proscribed Jamaat-e-Islamia, died inside a jail in Uttar Pradesh where he was lodged after his detention under the PSA.
Malik, from Kulangam Handwara, was among hundreds of Kashmiris who were detained after the BJP-led Central government read down Article 370 and reorganised the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories.
Absence of medicare facilities in J&K jails
The probe in Dar’s death in 2012 exposed the dearth of medical facilities in J&K’s jails.
In his report, the inquiry officer revealed that inmates of the Kupwara jail were not provided medical treatment and check-up whenever required in the absence of a regular doctor or trained paramedical staff.
“The jail authorities have handed over the medical section to a non-technical person (nursing orderly) having no knowledge about medicines and prescriptions…,” the report revealed.
Officials in J&K’s prison department told The Wire that there is a severe dearth of medical staff in the jails of J&K.
“Not a single doctor is posted in seven out of 13 jails of J&K and emergencies in these institutions are mostly attended to by pharmacists and nursing orderlies. The medicos in these jails come once in a week or on a on-demand basis,” he said
These jails include district jail Udhampur, district jail Baramulla, special (correctional home) Pulwama, sub-jail Reasi, district jail Rajouri, district jail Kupwara and district jail Bhaderwah.
In the absence of proper medical facilities for prisoners in J&K, their families often knock on the doors of courts for their treatment, even for minor complications. “The jail authorities usually do not move detainees to hospitals until they receive any direction from courts for their treatment or they (prisoners) become critical,” said advocate Shafqat Nazir, adding that it is the statutory duty of the authorities to extend the best possible medical facilities to people who have been detained.
He said the situation in jails outside Kashmir is worrisome. “The climatic conditions there make the lives of Kashmiri detainees miserable,” he said.
Advocate Habeel Iqbal said that there is no justification for detaining aged and ailing persons under the PSA.
“How can a 70-year-old or 80-year old person pose a threat to peace and security of the state? Their detention under the PSA is questionable and defies logic,” he said.
He said the inordinate delay in deciding habeas corpus petitions seeking the release of detained persons frustrates the very purpose for which these petitions are filed.
“The habeas corpus petitions filed by the families of PSA detainees should be quickly decided by the constitutional court,” he said.
SC guidelines for decongesting prisons not applicable to PSA detainees
The Jammu and Kashmir government last year maintained that the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court to decongest jails following the outbreak of COVID-19 are not applicable to PSA detainees.
A high-level committee constituted by the UT administration 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 made this observation after the chief justice of the J&K high court referred a representation to it for the release of a detainee.
In its directive, the Supreme Court had said that states/union territories could consider the release of prisoners who have been convicted or are undertrial for offences for which the prescribed punishment is up to seven years or less.
“Shift prisoners to jails of Valley or release them”
The outbreak of the second wave of COVID-19 has triggered the demand for shifting Kashmiri prisoners lodged in jails in the Jammu province and other states and union territories to the jails closest to their homes in the Valley.
In a statement, the Kashmir High Court Bar Association has urged the Government of India and J&K administration to either shift Kashmiri detainees or release them on parole.
The family of separatist leader Shahid-Ul-Islam, who is lodged in Tihar jail, has appealed to the government to release him on humanitarian grounds.
Shahid, according to his family, has tested positive for COVID-19.
The family of top separatist leader and chairman of the Democratic Freedom Party, Shabir Ahmad Shah, has also made a similar appeal.
Tihar jail houses several top Kashmiri separatist leaders who were arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and other central agencies on different charges before and after August 5, 2019.
Besides Tihar jail, many Kashmiris are also lodged in jails of Uttar Pradesh after they were detained under the PSA.
Before the imposition of governor’s rule in J&K in 2018, PSA detainees, who were permanent residents of J&K, could be lodged only in jails within J&K as there was a legal bar on taking them to prisons outside the state. But four weeks after the collapse of the PDP-BJP government, Governor N.N. Vohra amended the PSA to allow the authorities to lodge locals detained under the law in jails outside the state.
When contacted, outgoing director general, prisons department V.K. Singh said that they are managing healthcare of prisoners with facilities provided to them by the government.
“Some jails are better equipped with medical facilities and some may not be,” he said.
He said local hospitals are a back-up for the prison department whenever inmates face complications. “In Kashmir, we shift prisoners to Police Hospital, SMHS and even SKIMS for treatment on advice of doctors,” he said.
He, however, pointed out that there are technical difficulties in shifting of PSA detainees from one jail to another for providing them better medical facilities.
“In case of undertrials, I can shift them from a jail not well-equipped with medical facilities to a jail with better l facilities. But in the case of PSA detainees I cannot do the same as the competent authority for shifting them from one jail to another is the government,” he said.