Jail Unrest?

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Days after a fight between the jail officials and the prisoners in central jail Srinagar, a series of interventions started to unravel the real reason behind the crisis, reports Saima Bhat

Family members of prisoners protesting at Press Colony.

Family members of prisoners protesting at Press Colony.

A loud bang broke the silence of old city’s Saida Kadal – Rainawari-Kathi Darwaza belt – during the intervening night of April 4 and April 5. Known for the City Central Jail and adjoining psychiatric hospital, the panic spread in the area quite fast. The mushroom-cloud in the darkness led them to conclude that it happened in the jail premises. But the timing of the blast prevented them from coming out. It soon followed by the suffocating pepper gas and the residents had a sleepless night.

Next morning, the early risers and joggers sensed the uneasy calm. The annoying smell was still in the environs. The internet connectivity was down. Trouble was established but the details were not known until the media reported about the incident that it was a fight between jail inmates and the staff. At least ten inmates were injured; two of them critically injured: Abid Kachru, 17, who received pellet injuries in the eyes, and was later operated, and Mukhtar Ahmad, who was allegedly injured due to beating by the staff. Doctors have advised him ‘Shoulder Shaft Replacement’.

Later that day, SSP, Central Jail Srinagar issued a statement saying they had to carry out some renovation works which resulted in the violence.

“It was the efforts put forth by the department that four new barracks were approved and construction was in full swing and two barracks were handed over to this institution within the shortest span of time for lodgement of prisoners; accordingly prisoners lodged in old barrack number 1 were shifted to the newly constructed barrack in order to start the renovation of barrack in question,” the statement reads.

Detailing the sequence of events, SSP said that while undertaking the renovation work of barrack No 1 on April 4, “some blind portion of the barrack was dismantled which was being used by the inmates to carry out their anti-national, illegal activities. Suddenly, the jail inmates lodged in the adjoining barracks raised anti-national slogans, and within no time, in view of the old and dilapidated structure of barracks, the locking handles, doors, window panes and ventilators broke down and the inmates came out of their barracks and started pelting stones on the labourers as well as the staff posted in the jail. The labourers and the staff had miraculous escape as the agitated/violent jail inmates in the first instance broke out the door of the prisoner’s mess and took possession of more than seven LPG cylinders which they put on fire at different places. The inmates went berserk and started damaging the jail property. They set on fire prisoners’ mess, canteen barrack which got damaged completely including the CCTV.”

Post-incident, many delegations went inside the jail to know the details but could not get much. As the authorities failed to diffuse the tension for 10 days, 422 jail inmates went on hunger strike. They refused to meet their relatives or attend court hearings since April 5. They even threatened to commit “mass suicides” if their demands were not met. They were demanding the transfer of incumbent jailer, “no inmate should be shifted to outside jails” and “the FIR lodged against inmates should be revoked.” The inmates have accused the jailer of being behind the crisis.

Officials said transferring the jailed head is impossible. “If it is the demand, it is politics. How can we allow that” a senior Prison Department official, wishing anonymity, said?

Back home, the families of jail inmates had their own apprehensions. Sensing trouble, they reached Srinagar’s press enclave to register their protest. The family members including parents, spouses, children, assembled at press enclave and raised slogans, seeking redressal measures for their confined members. The families urged authorities to withdraw the FIR registered against the inmates. They also wanted meetings with the inmates.

After this protest, a delegation from Srinagar administration headed by Tehsildar Khanyar Abdur Rehman Dar met the inmates. He assured them that DC Srinagar shall listen to their demands on Saturday, April 20. This ‘promise’ led to the deferment of the hunger strike. The striking inmates also decided to meet their family members for three days till they meet the DC. However, the FIR stands registered.

The Prison’s office also confirmed that the “FIR stand registered in the concerned police station regarding the incident and the CCTV footage has been sent to the forensics by the SIT constituted by DGP Dilbagh Singh.”

On April 11, a team of advocates under the High Court Bar Association visited the jail premises, after being authorised by the Chief Judicial Magistrate Srinagar. After their visit, they filed a report saying there was a communication breakdown between inmates and the jail administration. The Bar said the inmates want the incident of ‘verbal brawl’ should be probed by a sitting high court judge.

Quoting inmates, the Bar reported that they appeared ‘tense, terrified and somewhat subdued’ and the crisis of events had actually started unfolding from April 1, during the night till April 5.

The jail administration, according to the Bar report, called representatives of the inmates on April 1 and asked them to evacuate barrack number 1A and 1B, as some improvement and construction work was to be performed. They wanted one barrack to be taken first but the superintended disagreed. “He ordered them to pack their belongings in the small cabins and lock them up. They, accordingly, obliged by obeying this order in letter and spirit and the keys of the cabins/cells were retained by them,” the report said. “But on the fourth day, the inmates heard a lot of hues and cry from Barrack No 3 and 4, which is adjacent to barrack number 1A, that the jail authorities forcefully dismantled the small cabins without getting the books and other belongings to be removed from there. Most of the inmates spend their time reading the Holy Quran and other religious books and literature which has been encouraged by the authorities over the period of time.”

The Bar report says the inmates were shocked over the use of mechanical drills and machines to dismantle the walls and “desecrating the Holy Quran and religious books without giving the opportunity to remove them in a respectful manner, which they could not tolerate”. This, according to Bar, triggered the crisis. In response to sloganeering, the report said, the jail authorities brought in heavy contingents of CRPF inside the jail, along with local SHO Rainawari. They “thrashed the inmates with batons and hurled filthy abuses” and resorted to the use of teargas shells and pellet guns inside the barracks, injuring two of the inmates seriously.

The inmates, as per the report, could not comment on “who caused the fire” and they have narrated the whole incident to DC Srinagar, who has assured them of impartial enquiry into the incident.

The other day, SDM Sandeep accompanied by Tehsildar Muneer Kakru, Tehsildar Rabia and CMO Talat also visited them and assured redressal of their grievances.  On April 10, District and Sessions Judge Srinagar Abdul Rashid Mir, also visited the jail in pursuance of the orders of the High Court passed in a PIL filed by High Court Bar Association.

“The inmates feel that there has been a sinister conspiracy against them, as the State has adopted a hostile attitude towards them for having different political views inimical towards the ruling party. They apprehend that they are not being allowed sufficient opportunity of proving their innocence in the courts of law, and may be shifted to far-flung jails in order to hamper their trials,” the Bar report said. “They have demanded that the whole incident should be investigated by the High Court by appointing a High Court Judge to conduct a Judicial Enquiry into the incident.”

The new FIR about the incident, as per the inmates, will be an attempt to further victimise them and prolong their custody in yet another protracted trial where they will have no sufficient defences, also mentions the report.

However, the senior prison official said he has reported that the jail officials did not desecrate anything. “I have been informed that the additional SP and one constable of the jail preserved the Holy Quran in different boxes with respect, but after the stone pelting and fire started, they left the boxes there and ran for their lives first,” the officer said. He put the losses at around Rs 1.15 crores including the two barracks and the high ended CCTV cameras. The official said that no inmates are shifted outside.

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