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Bombay HC Directs Maharashtra Govt to Safeguard Prisoners Against Covid-19

Bombay High Court

Bombay High Court

While thousands of prisoners are being released on interim bail, several human rights activists charged under UAPA and other acts continue to remain in prison and are not even getting bail on humanitarian grounds, say leading human rights activists

Ashok Kumar | MUMBAI

The continued rise in Covid-19 cases in Maharashtra is having its impact even in prisons with a growing number of inmates getting infected. The Bombay high court recently directed the state government to take immediate action to safeguard prisoners and jail staff.

The court’s order related to the interim bail and furlough pleas of two inmates at the Kolhapur central prison, but the judges told the government to ensure safety of all prisoners and jail staff across the state. Maharashtra has 60 prisons with a total capacity of over 24,000. However, according to Mihir Desai, a human rights lawyer and a senior member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), there were more than 36,000 prisoners in these jails as on March 31, 2020. About 75 per cent of them were undertrials.

In an interaction with Clarion India, Desai – who has also brought out a report, the first in the ‘Lockdown on Civil Liberties’ series – notes that while many convicted prisoners whose parole depended on the prison authorities managed to get paroled because of congestion in jails, human rights activists and scholars charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) filed to get bail even on humanitarian grounds.

“Several political prisoners charged under special laws like UAPA are facing incarceration in spite of flimsy evidence and charges under these laws have led to indefinite incarceration without any conviction, whereby the process itself is the punishment,” he notes in the report.

The Maharashtra government had set up a high-powered committee (HPC) in March, which recommended that undertrial prisoners who faced maximum punishment of less than seven years be released on interim bail on personal bond for 45 days and after that on blocks of 30 days till such time as the notification under the Epidemic Diseases Act was in force.

However, those charged with or convicted of serious economic offences/bank scams or charged under special laws including Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) or UAPA, were not covered included and extended the benefit. Despite the matter being raised in court, the HPC rejected the plea and excluded those charged under the UAPA or the other acts.

“Decongestion should have been based, apart from other things, on age, disabilities, comorbidities, sex and general health conditions,” said Desai in his report. “This would be especially true for undertrials, who are yet to be held guilty of any offences.”

Another petition filed by the National Alliance of Peoples Movement (NAPM) and Medha Patkar, challenging the discriminatory treatment by the HPC of not allowing the release of prisoners under UAPA, Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act and MCOCA, was also dismissed by the high court. “We believe that it is important for HPC to immediately ensure decongestion of prisons by not making distinction on the basis of offences charged with especially for those prisoners above 60 years,” notes Desai. “Even for those below 60 years if the prisoners are suffering from comorbidity they should be released on temporary bail.”

Many political prisoners charged under UAPA and other laws are held in prisons on the basis of flimsy evidence and charges under these laws have led to indefinite incarceration without any conviction, he argues.

According to the senior lawyer and human rights activist, most prison websites are sketchy and do not deal with Covid-affected patients. And prison staff have also reportedly said there has been large-scale under-reporting of Covid positive cases from prisons.

Desai cites the case involving Varavara Rao, the 80-year-old famous poet suffering from comorbidities, who has been incarcerated for nearly two years under UAPA and was found to be Covid-positive only when he was taken to a government hospital for treatment of other ailments. Two co-prisoners of his who were in close contact with him include Anand Teltumbde, a noted academic, and activist Mahesh Raut. “But obtaining credible test reports from the prison authorities has itself posed a challenge,” he says.

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