New Delhi: Over 50 international figures, including Nobel laureates, academics, lawyers and European parliamentarians, and organisations have written to the authorities in India demanding an “immediate release” of incarcerated activists in the Bhima Koregaon case.
The letter addressed to Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, and several other leaders and officials argued that many “human rights defenders” awaiting trials in Indian jails have developed health issues because of “over congestion and neglect, absence of proper medical care, deplorable hygiene conditions”.
The signatories include scholar Noam Chomsky, former UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention president José Antonio Guevara-Bermúdez, Nobel laureates Olga Tokarczuk and Wole Soyinka, UK MPs Caroline Lucas and Apsana Begum, Oxford University professor Faisal Devji, Brown University professor Ashutosh Varshney, novelists Amit Chaudhuri and Ahdaf Souei. Organisations such as InSAF India, Sikh Council UK, Hindus for Human Rights, PEN Canada and English PEN have endorsed the letter.
The signatories expressed grave concern about the condition of the jailed activists amid the pandemic.
“These political prisoners are now at great risk of contracting the virulent strain of the virus — which some have already contracted — and will have no access to prompt medical care that is necessary to save lives. We therefore urgently seek that the temporary administrative order to release prisoners due to the pandemic be applied to political prisoners in India,” the letter read.
It added: “We strongly believe that by turning a blind eye to the toll exacted by Covid on those it holds in its custody, the government is in violation of its constitutional duty to safeguard the life of these citizens.”
Though the signatories sought to speak for all political prisoners in India, they especially focused on ‘BK 16’, the 16 activists accused in the Bhima Koregaon case awaiting trial. The letter noted that a majority of the activists facing trial in the case are senior citizens and particularly vulnerable.
“In a moment of unprecedented national calamity, we ask for decisive action by the government and court to set the BK-16 at liberty to avert further tragedy. When the prison is unable to provide for the health and safety of the prisoners, the family has a right to offer such care as they deem necessary. None of the prisoners is deemed flight risk,” the letter read.
“We acknowledge that while the Bombay High Court allowed three of the 16 arrested to be transferred to private hospitals, there is a humanitarian emergency facing all these political prisoners, whose lives are in grave danger from Covid-19.”
The signatories have made four main demands — immediate release of Bhima Koregaon accused, allow them to be cared for by their kin, compassionate treatment of the activists by the state to avoid catastrophic consequences and ensuring their constitutional right to live and die in dignity.
The 16 people arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case are Jyoti Raghoba Jagtap, Sagar Tatyaram Gorkhe, Ramesh Murlidhar Gaichor, Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, Rona Wilson, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Hany Babu and Father Stan Swamy.
Bail pleas of activists rejected many times
Among the 16 activists in jail, Hany Babu, Stan Swamy, Varavara Rao, Mahesh Raut, Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor have all tested positive for Covid-19.
Most of the 16 accused were neither named in the FIR nor were they present at Bhima Koregaon when the violence took place on 31 December 2017.
Multiple interim bail requests made by the activists on health grounds have been rejected until now.
Activist Sudha Bhardwaj’s interim bail request has been rejected twice, once by a special NIA court and another by the Bombay High Court.
The bail plea of 81-year-old Varavara Rao on health grounds was also rejected twice. He has had to be hospitalised multiple times. The NIA had been opposing the bail claiming he wants to take “undue advantage” of the pandemic.
While Rao was released on medical bail granted by the Bombay High Court earlier this year, the signatories to the letter noted how the bail was given “when it was feared that he may die”.
“Last year, one of the 16, an 80-year-old poet, received temporary bail on medical grounds after weeks of hospitalization, at a moment when it was feared that he may die in custody,” the letter read.
The NIA opposed Father Stan Swamy’s request for interim bail also on the same grounds that he wants to seek undue advantage of the pandemic. Swamy is suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease and is currently in hospital — he tested positive for Covid-19. The Bombay HC Thursday said he shall remain admitted in the Mumbai-based private hospital until 18 June.