Authorities start decongesting jails in Indian Kashmir to prevent COVID-19

By Shah Abbas

Srinagar, India, Mar 31 (efe-epa).- Authorities in India-administered Kashmir have started a process to decongest jails to stop COVID-19 spread among prisoners in overcrowded facilities.

Prisons in the region, which has seen decades of separatist conflict and a sovereignty dispute between India and Pakistan, house hundreds of inmates arrested or sentenced in cases related to separatism.

The state government, which is being run directly by New Delhi since Aug. 5, 2019 after India scrapped the semi-autonomous status of the region, has constituted a ‘high-powered committee’ for temporary release of convicts and under-trails lodged in the jails of Jammu and Kashmir in order to stop coronavirus spread among inmates.

“The committee shall consider the class/category of prisons to be considered for parole and interim bail depending upon the nature of offense, the number of years to which he/she has been sentenced or severity of offense with which he/she is charged,” an official at the Divisional Commissioner’s office told EFE on the condition of anonymity, as he was not authorized to talk to media.

The period of parole and interim bail will also be decided by the panel, he added.

On Mar. 23, the Supreme Court of India had ordered all states and Union Territories to consider releasing ‘”some” prisoners on parole to reduce overcrowding in prisons.

According to the High Court Bar Association – the main lawyers’ body in the region – hundreds of Kashmiris have been kept in detention both inside and outside the jails since a crackdown following the controversial decision to revoke the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir.

The detainees include HCBA’s ailing president, advocate Mian Abdul Qayoom, a known supporter of separatist politics.

“Bar held a meeting through teleconference during which it urged the authorities to release all the detainees and political prisoners lodged in and outside J&K in light of the directions issued by the Supreme Court recently,” HCBA spokesman Muzaffar told EFE.

He added that since jails were often overcrowded across India, the Supreme Court had noticed the potential threat to the lives of inmates, particularly those suffering from diabetes, hypertension and other life-threatening diseases, who have been found more susceptible to COVID-19.

The official at the Divisional Commissioner’s office told EFE that the region’s Home Department has already started the process and revoked detention orders of 31 persons lodged in different jail.

The government had arrested more than five thousand people before and after August to quell any possible unrest before revoking the region’s autonomous status, including three former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir – Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, and Mehbooba Mufti – along with hundreds of their supporters.

Although the Abdullah father-son duo was released recently, Mufti continues to be detained under controversial Public Safety Act PSA.

Moreover, hundreds of separatist leaders and activists have also been imprisoned for years, with dozens of them serving lifetime sentences.

On Mar. 27, the prisoners lodged in two Jammu jails had made a representation to the Chief Justice of Jammu and Kashmir Gita Mittal for considering their releases on conditional and temporary grounds in view of COVID-19 the pandemic.

“It is known to all that jails in Jammu and Kashmir lack emergency and medical facilities even in the normal conditions. The medical staff available in the jails is not even competent to control the common flu. How can such incompetent and insufficient staff be able to prove of any help during the present situation created by the COVID-19?” the appeal said.

It added that the inmates were also worried about their families as a three-week countrywide lockdown had been announced and meeting facilities have also been discarded keeping in view of the coronavirus spread.

Meanwhile, the number of positive COVID-19 cases was on the rise in Indian Kashmir.

“Total number of positive COVID-19 cases in Jammu and Kashmir has reached 49,” government spokesperson, Rohit Kansal told EFE.

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