Kashmiri prisoners’ plight worries rights defenders

Sehrai complains of worsening eyesight in jail

Hilal Mir

Srinagar, April 24 (KMS): In Indian illegally occupied Jammu and Kashmir, the rights activists and experts have said that the illegal detention of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat Jammu and Kashmir Chairman, Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai since July 2020 has highlighted the bleak plight of Kashmiri political prisoners.

Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai, 77, can hear only with the help of hearing aids as he was diagnosed with 70 percent hearing loss in his right ear and 50 percent loss in his left in 2019.

The irreversible loss of hearing was caused years after custodial torture in 2000 in a jail in India’s Jharkhand state, according to his son, Mujahid Sehrai.

Mujahid Sehrai said that a few months before the arrest, his father had a cataract operation but after his arrest, there was no follow-up by an eye specialist.

Police allow him a 10-minute call with his family once a week but during the brief conversations, much of which goes into exchanging pleasantries, the septuagenarian cannot even fully explain his health condition.

A few days ago, Mujahid said his father complained of not being able to read the Qur’an or clearly identify someone in front of him.

“He said he is losing eyesight and he finds it difficult even to stand up and walk up to the landline phone which is probably some distance away from his prison cell for the weekly call,” said Mujahid. Sehrai

Even when he was free, the son said, his knee trouble and degeneration of muscles in the legs made walking difficult. The family does not know if he can take occasional walks as advised by doctors.

The family sends Sehrai’s monthly stock of medicines for hypertension, high uric acid, hyperthyroidism, post-surgery eye issues and an enlarged prostate. Jail officials then dispense the quota a strip at a time, Mujahid said.

Ashraf Sehrai had been under detention at his home in Srinagar, since Aug. 5, 2019, when the Indian government scrapped the special status of Kashmir and put thousands of political leaders and activists in jail, mostly outside Kashmir.

Like hundreds, Sehrai’s detention has been justified under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA), a law that allows the Indian state to jail any person for up to three months without a trial. Detention can be extended to six months and then a year.

Hurriyat leader, Masarat Alam Butt has spent 22 years in illegal detention under the law which has been termed a “lawless law” by Amnesty International in 2010.

Sehrai’s family filed in November 2020 an application in the High Court to void his detention. Last week, when the application came up for a hearing, the judge was absent.

Ahsan Untoo, a human rights defender, who was one of thousands jailed before or after Aug.5, 2019, told media that a detainee is completely at the mercy of the authorities these days.

“Under the present regime, the laws under which people are detained have become harsher and legal redress difficult. Other forms of relief have also dried up,” he said.

Other forms of relief were usually jail visits by International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) officials and an occasional assessment of prisoners’ condition in various jails by a visiting team of Kashmir’s largest lawyers’ group, the Jammu and Kashmir Bar Association, said Untoo.

Earlier, a provision of the draconian Public Safety Act prohibited the government from transferring a detainee to a jail outside the region, said Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a former law professor at the Central University of Kashmir and noted political commentator.

That provision was scrapped in 2018 when the Indian government started ruling Kashmir directly. A prisoner can now be sent to far away jails in India so that his family has little contact.

“This is an attempt to make Kashmiri prisoners and their plight invisible to the world at large,” he added.

Ghulam Mohammad Butt, 65, a longtime member of Jama’at-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir, died in jail in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, in December 2019. No family member had spoken to him after his detention on July 17, 2017, or visited.

Pro-freedom leader Muhammad Yaseen Dar of Budgam district learned about the death of his wife only on the day of his release on August 9, 2020, from a yearlong preventive detention.

Late Thursday, the wife of APHC leader, Ayaz Akbar died of cancer in Srinagar, his family said. Akbar is under illegal detention in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail.

Sehrai’s son-in-law has been the only person to visit him after coronavirus restrictions on visits were lifted, while his son had a video interaction once from the Central Jail Kashmir.

“My brother-in-law was not allowed to hand a packet of dry fruits to my father. He was told ‘this could become a precedent for others.’ My father is ailing. He needs a good diet,” said Mujahid.

According to the Jail Manual, which dictates rules and conduct for prison authorities and inmates, the prison diet should have meat once a week but Udhampur jail, where Sehrai is housed, does not serve non-vegetarian food.

Harish Kotwal, superintendent of the jail, told media the prison has a “common mess” and therefore serves only vegetarian meals.

According to Untoo, the rights defender, more than 30 pro-freedom leaders, including eight women, suffer from multiple ailments. Most have been housed in jails either outside Jammu and Kashmir or in the Jammu province of the region, which is more than 300 kilometers away.

During his detention at the Srinagar Central Jail last year, Untoo said he witnessed the deaths of three prisoners — Ghulam Mohammad Lone alias Papa Kisthwari and Ali Muhammad Kumar, both in their seventies, and Mujeeb Sidiqqui, in his late forties — from health complications he said were not addressed adequately.

“We requested the jail authorities to revamp the health infrastructure so that a prisoner who develops emergency complications could be stabilized here and then taken to the hospital. I remember Mujeeb bled from his nose several times before jail doctors attended to him and then his condition deteriorated very quickly,” said Ahsan Untoo.

“Against a capacity of 18, there were 25 prisoners in our cell. I told an official that we are literally breathing into each other during sleep amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

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