Why Are Kashmiri Prisoners Happy About Coronavirus Pandemic?
Many Kashmiris detained under PSA after Art 370 was abrogated, have been released in the wake of COVID.
Inside a quarantine centre in South Kashmir’s Tral, Saima Jaan and her husband are ‘having the time of their life’. They have finally gotten to see each other after eight long months of separation.
Saima’s husband, Muzaffar Ahmad Bhat, was detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA) in August 2019 and was shifted to Central Jail, Agra. Bhat, along with other political prisoners, was released after 8 months.
At the Tral quarantine centre, 40 kms from Srinagar, both husband and wife can be seen smiling and gossiping.
For them, the coronavirus pandemic has been a ‘boon’ – it has reunited them. “When courts and my appeals to the government did not fructify any result, the Lord came up with this pandemic, letting the prisoners go home and meet their families,” smiles 25-year-old Saima.
‘Life Was Pathetic After My Husband’s Imprisonment’
On 14 April, the government revoked the PSA detention orders against 41 persons lodged in jails across Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, and Bhat was part of that list. Jail authorities asked families of the detainees to bring the release order along and ensure transport facility for their released family members.
Saima says that she took financial help from a neighbour and hired a taxi to reach Agra and bring her husband back home.
“Life after my husband’s imprisonment was pathetic. I used to beg to get the needs of my children fulfilled.”
Hundreds of people including political leaders, journalists, lawyers and activists were detained when the central government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in August 2019, and bifurcated the state into two union territories. Most of the detainees were booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA) 1978, and taken to jails across the country.
Under the PSA, a person may be detained without trial for up to two years if charged with ‘threat to national security’, or up to one year if booked for ‘disruption of law and order’.
The process of revoking the PSA orders started in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Supreme Court directed the states and union territories to consider decongesting jails in view of the coronavirus threat. The J&K government also formed a committee which decided to release convicted prisoners and undertrials on the basis of the nature of offence, the period served in jail, and severity of offence.
Why Journalist Qazi Shibli Was Slapped With ‘Public Safety Act’
On 13 April, the PSA order of a 27-year-old journalist Qazi Shibli was revoked by the government, and the following day, he was released from the district jail in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. Qazi is back home in south Kashmir’s Anantnag, where he has kept himself into isolation.
In July 2019, Qazi published a story on his news website, ‘Kashmiriyat’, about a government order of the movement of additional troops in Kashmir.
The story first landed him in the local police station, and finally, he was slapped with the PSA.
Qazi said that each day in jail had created more disbelief in him. “I had lost hope about my release from prison. My elder brother used to come and meet me in jail. He used to pacify me with the words like ‘court has heard my case’; and that ‘my PSA will be quashed soon’. There was not even a ray of hope until the fear of coronavirus weighed on the minds of authorities. They stated that the virus may spread in jails like wildfire and that decongestion of prisoners is necessary,” says Qazi.
He believes that the coronavirus pandemic has inadvertently played a major role in his release and that of several other detainees.
Talking about his experience in jail, Qazi says that when he was flown to Bareilly jail, he had only ten rupees in his pocket and he did not have even extra clothes with him. “I didn’t change clothes for two months because I had no clothes. Due to repeated washing of clothes, my t-shirt developed 119 holes.”
‘When Local Courts Did Nothing, the Almighty Drew Up a Plan to Free Me’
For the past 13 months, a journalism student Adil Farooq Bhat did not see any hope for his release until he was also set free following the coronavirus threat.
In January 2019, Adil, the then third semester journalism student at Central University of Kashmir, was booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA) and shifted to Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu for allegedly ‘working as overground worker of militants’.
Through the steel mesh placed on the jail window his father used to meet him and give him hope that the court had heard his matter and that his release order would come soon. “Every time my father said these words, I would see tears in his eyes.”
On the evening of 14 April 2020, Adil was called by the jail clerk and informed about his release order.
“When the local court and family appeals did nothing, the Almighty Allah came up with a plan and set me free,” says Adil.
Adil termed the coronavirus pandemic a ‘blessing in disguise’ for prisoners. “Besides that, it has wreaked havoc across the globe and killed lakhs of people, but on the other side, it has opened the gateway to releasing hundreds of prisoners,” opines Adil.
Amnesty India Urged Govt to Free Political Detainees in Wake of COVID
Amid COVID-19 pandemic, political leaders in Kashmir, human rights activists, and families of detainees lodged in and outside J&K’s jails, were making pleas to bring back prisoners. Families were worried about the detainees given their vulnerable age and underlying health conditions.
Recently, Amnesty International India also urged the Government of India to immediately release all political detainees in view of the coronavirus threat.
(Irfan Amin Malik is a reporting fellow at The Kashmir Walla magazine, and a former staff correspondent at Greater Kashmir.)
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