#NoJailDuringCovid: Coronavirus Pandemic – Release the Bhima Koregaon political prisoners

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“Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views

-          UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, March 25, 2020 

While the entire world fights the pandemic caused by Covid 19, over 4.5 lakh people are still languishing in India across 1339 prisons. In the past one month, state governments in several states including Maharashtra, Assam, Haryana, Delhi have made announcements of releasing some prisoners- undertrials as well as convicts- owing to overcrowding and fearing the spread of coronavirus among inmates. The Supreme Court of India has empowered state governments to form High-power committees which could then decide upon the release of prisoners in each state.

This appeal is being written to highlight how the activists, lawyers and teachers arrested in what has now come to be known as the Bhima Koregaon/ Elgaar Parishad case should be released keeping in mind the direction of United Nations and to highlight that their release can’t be any harm to the society or danger to the legal procedures.

In Maharashtra, applications for temporary bail on medical grounds (in the background of dangers posed by the outbreak of Covid 19) filed for two of the Bhima Koregaon/ Elgaar Parishad detainees Shoma Sen (aged 61) and Varavara Rao (aged 80), were rejected by a Sessions Court in Mumbai on March 30, 2020. In addition, on April 8, the Supreme Court rejected the pleas filed by Prof. Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha for extension of time to “surrender” in the light of the pandemic. While rejecting the applications, the Sessions Court Mumbai did not consider the pandemic as “change in circumstances” and later the Supreme Court held "It would have been appropriate for the accused to surrender as the courts are open and not totally closed". The Supreme Court ordered that Teltumbde and Navlakha surrender without any mention about the Covid 19 pandemic. Both- Teltumbde and Navlakha surrendered on April 14- Ambedkar Jayanti.

What is the Bhima Koregaon case?

It has been nearly a year and half since nine human rights defenders were arrested on an FIR related to the violence that ensued on January 1, 2018 at Bhima Koregaon, when Hindutva mobs attacked Dalit Bahujans marching to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the battle that led to the defeat of Peshwa rule in 1818. In the aftermath of that incident, Dalit households were raided and thousands of Dalit-Bahujan youths were rounded up in the combing operations that followed. The BJP government, which was in power then instead of arresting the main culprits, right wing leaders Milind Ekbote and Manohar Bhide started rounding up workers and intellectuals.

In January 2018, it arrested trade unionists and workers at Reliance Energy Ltd. This was followed by raids of homes of several activists in April and then the arrests of Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson, Prof. Shoma Sen , Sudhir Dhawale, Adv. Surendra Gadling, Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Sudha Bhardwaj and Adv. Arun Ferreira in June and August 2018 respectively. All were charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) –  a law under which under-trials can be kept in jail for years without bail and on circumstantial evidence

Multiple attempts at bail for the activists failed despite the whole case being based on very thin evidence. Moreover, the cyber forensic analysis by credible investigative journalists and technical experts discredit the evidence used by Pune police to incriminate the activists.  The analysis reveals that the letters which were allegedly recovered from the hard disk of Rona Wilson, one of the nine activists accused in the case, and used by the police to link the accused to a banned political party are most likely to have been planted in the disk through use of malware which allowed remote access to Wilson’s computer. This clearly indicates manipulation of evidence and the fabricated nature of the case.  

In January 2020, more than a year after the chargesheets were filed by the Pune police, the Union Home ministry got the case suddenly transferred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and thus brought the case under its control at a time when the Home department in the newly formed Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra had announced a review of the case, setting up of a Special Investigating Team (SIT) and dropping of the false cases against the activists.

 It is in the same case where 9 activists have been languishing behind bars since June/August 2018 and now Prof. Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha have been taken into custody.

Why keeping these activists in prison during Corona Virus pandemic is dangerous

Prisoners have an inalienable right to healthcare and they certainly have the right not to contract a disease in the prison. The statement released by United Nations (UN) says, “For those in detention, the State has a particular duty to protect inmates’ physical and mental health and well-being, as set out by the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners”. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution on the Right to Life casts an obligation on the state to preserve lives.

Various public health professionals worldwide have raised concerns about the risk of prisons becoming "incubators" for the disease especially since prisons are overcrowded and lack necessary hygiene measures. Indian prisons especially suffer from overcrowding making it nearly impossible to maintain the necessary physical distance required to nix the spread of the disease. The jail staffs work in shifts and have contacts with outside world. This means the lives of both prisoners and jail staff is at risk, and if indeed the virus spreads in the prisons, there are chances that some prisoners may still have it even if the countrywide lockdown is lifted making it difficult further to contain the disease. The news about the death of the first federal inmate in US has already reached us. Since Indian prisons are a complete blackhole, the news from where is hard to emerge, one is not aware of the specific onset of the disease within the prisons rights now.  In the US, thirty-one prosecutors nationally, those you might assume are normally tasked to put people behind bars, are now actually advocating to let more people out to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons. Similarly in India, senior lawyers have signed letters to release prisoners on account of fears of the spread of Corona virus like wildfire in Indian prisons. In Maharashtra, the jail superintendent of Taloja jail-the jail where all male prisoners in the case are lodged- has written to various District Courts on April 7 saying that the jail has already overshot its capacity by 1000 inmates posing health hazards for the rest 3200 inmates.

The prisoners in the Bhima Koregaon/ Elgaar Parishad case, activists and social workers in their realm, greatly loved and respected by the lakhs and millions of people they worked for, are in severe danger to contract this disease. They are in jail today simply because of their public spirited conscience. They have already spent more than 1.5 years in prisons and should be released on interim/medial bail on the grounds of their contributions to humanity and their specific health conditions.

In the light of above facts, we appeal to the Government of Maharashtra, in the sympathy for these nine prisoners espoused by the MVA government to

1.      Release all those arrested under the Bhima Koregaon/Elgaar Parishad case on interim bail or place them under house arrest;

2.       Stop all further persecution of political dissenters

For more information see these links:

Bhima Koregaon Files: The Story Of Nine Activists Being Punished Without Trial

Fighters for rights
Redefining Peshwai in Contemporary India: Elgaar Parishad, Shanivarwada, Pune
 
Brecht’s words misinterpreted to cast Cloak of Criminality over arrested Activists
Did the Pune Police tamper with evidence against Bhima Koregaon accused?