Arbitrarily detained Kashmiri prisoners must be freed: Global rights groups

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In a joint statement, the international rights groups have demanded the release of Kashmiri prisoners “detained arbitrarily” as the coronavirus outbreak spreads in India. The statement says that India is abided by an international law, which ensures the physical and mental health and wellbeing of inmates.

The statement was jointly given by the Amnesty International India, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, International Commissions of Jurists (ICJ), International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT).

“However, with an occupancy rate of over 117%, precarious hygienic conditions and inadequate health services, the overcrowded Indian prisons constitute the perfect environment for the spread of coronavirus,” the statement adds.

By now, the number of positive cases has surpassed the 4,000 mark, among them at least 109 are in Jammu and Kashmir. “Inmates and prison staff, who live in confined spaces and in close proximity with others, remain extremely vulnerable to COVID-19,” the groups stated.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also called on governments to “examine ways to release those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, among them older detainees and those who are sick, as well as low-risk offenders.”

The statement, though, welcomed steps taken by Indian authorities to decongest prisons in an effort to contain COVID-19. In a bid to contain the spread of the disease among inmates and prison staff, the Supreme Court asked state governments on 23 March to take steps to decongest the country’s prison system by considering granting parole to those convicted or charged with offenses carrying jail terms of up to seven years.

“There is a concern that hundreds of Kashmiri youth, journalists, political leaders, human right defenders and others arbitrarily arrested in the course of 2019, including following the repeal of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution on 5 August 2019, will not be among those benefiting from the measure,” the statement read. “Human rights groups and UN experts have repeatedly called for the release as a matter of priority of ‘those detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views.’”

Last month, the Ministry of Home Affairs revealed that 7,357 persons had been arrested in J-K since August 2019. While the majority have since been released, hundreds are still detained under sections 107 and 151 of the Criminal Procedure Code, the Unlawful Activities  (Prevention) Act (UAPA), and the Public Security Act (PSA), a controversial law which allows the administrative detention of any individual for up to two years without charge or trial.

The isolation of inmates from the outside world is even more alarming in light of the huge number of deaths in custody, pointing towards the use of torture and ill-treatment in Indian prisons. Allegations of torture and ill-treatment against Kashmiri prisoners as part of a decades-long pattern of abuses have been repeatedly denounced by human rights groups and UN bodies.

The joint statement further demanded from Indian authorities to provide adequate healthcare and implement preventive measures, such as the screening of the inmates and prison staff, ensure that safeguards against torture and ill-treatment of people in custody, and access to lawyers and medical examinations.

The statement, in otherwise, again called for the restoration of high-speed internet in J-K, which remains restricted for the last eight months.

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