29 August 2021: “If the government becomes the monster that it can be, then the belly of the beast contains the people in jail”, said Nepali journalist Kanak Mani Dixit, speaking at a regional session on the rights of the incarcerated in South Asia, particularly in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
He was among the prominent activists, legal experts, concerned citizens, and formerly incarcerated persons across the region who came together online to discuss the issue on Sunday, 29 August 2021, under the umbrella of Sapan, the South Asia Peace Action Network, of which he is a founding member.
Held a day before the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, 30 August, the meeting underlined the need to recognise enforced disappearance as a distinct crime. The recent commemoration of World Humanitarian Day on 19 August also pegged the need for compassion and empathy for vulnerable communities. The tragic situation in Afghanistan further highlights the need for solidarity in the region and to insist on upholding human rights principles.
The event featured gut-wrenching testimonies in various languages from those who have experienced incarceration in the region, including those who were picked up but not produced before the courts for months or years. Those who fill the prisons tend to be the poorest of the poor as many pointed out.
The extensively researched materials also presented at the session included an overview of prison conditions and best practices around the region, leading veteran journalist Bharat Bhushan, who anchored the roundtable with human-rights advocates, to suggest that Sapan publish a booklet or paper to take the issue forward. He also recommended organising another session on this theme, involving eminent retired members of judiciary from across South Asia.
Speakers in the testimonies’ section hosted by Bangladeshi journalist Zyma Islam included well-known photographer and educator Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh and Hamid Ansari, the civil engineer in Mumbai who was incarcerated in Pakistan for six years and has written a book with journalist Geeta Mohan about his harrowing experiences.
Alam shared photographs of artwork by inmates at Keraniganj jail — an evocative expression of solidarity by and with the incarcerated persons at Keraniganj jail where he was imprisoned.
Activists Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal in India, imprisoned for over a year on charges that are still under dispute, spoke about their time in jail and the inhumane treatment of foreigners and the children of incarcerated women. During this time, Narwal lost her father to Covid-19. Their testimonies highlighted the particular situation of incarcerated women, an aspect further highlighted by advocate Suresh V. of PUCL who spoke later.
Karachi President of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) Majeed Motani who was incarcerated in Indian prisons for some months in 1986 and his daughter Fatima Majeed, vice president of PFF, highlighted the issues faced by the families of arrested fishermen and appealed to the governments to stop maritime arrests of innocent fishermen.
”If someone illegally crosses the border and is engaged in wrongdoing, by all means take action”, said Fatima.
They spoke in Urdu, translated for the audience, translated for the audience by Sapan volunteer Noman Quadri.
Organisers had gone to some trouble to obtain testimonies from those whose voices are rarely heard at such meetings. Participants heard an audio recording of Asif Iqbal Milton, who spent nearly 12 years in Indian jails. He had been a college student when he was arrested across the border in a case of mistaken identity, wrongfully incarcerated in place of Indian national Milton Barman.
He was released from prison after a laborious legal campaign by the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA, or Bangladesh Jatiyo Mohila Ainjibi Shamity, BJMAS) working in collaboration with Indian activists. The testimony in Bangla, shared with English subtitles, ended with a demand for compensation.
A team from Anhad Films and PUCL Rajasthan traveled to the border area to obtain video testimonies. Some had returned from prison in Pakistan, while others are still waiting for loved ones who never returned.
“The families are devastated, most have died… no closure yet from either government”, said Kavita Srivastava of PUCL, also a Sapan founder member, who initiated the project.
Brief clips from the interviews in Urdu, Sindhi and Marwari are available as a six-minute video played at the session, available at the PUCL Rajasthan channel. Brief outlines of the story are available in English. The video is here:
“Everything that is criminalised is not harmful and everything that harms is not criminalised”, said leading human-rights lawyer Ambika Satkunanathan in Sri Lanka, speaking at the experts’ session hosted by Bharat Bhushan.
Emphasising the need to rethink the idea of criminal justice reform, Satkunanathan referred to American lawyer Alec Karakatsanis’ work on the “punishment bureaucracy”, raising the issue of who defines a crime and the dehumanising and demonising nature of the current system that states use to justify violence. She suggested a reimagining — a transformation, and not just of prison and existing criminal justice systems where structural violence is inherent.
Renowned human-rights advocate Vrinda Grover observed that prison populations comprise largely those who are under-trial, a major factor in the overcrowding of jails and detention centres. She also talked about the “vindictiveness” of the system, highlighting the case of Father Stan Swamy — the octogenarian Jesuit priest and tribal rights’ activist who was repeatedly denied bail despite his ailing health, and passed away after contracting Covid in jail — as an instance of custodial death.
Jatin Desai, former secretary general Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) shared the story of a Pakistani prisoner Imran Kamran, who died in India having been incarcerated there since 2009. Despite having thrice been granted consular access since 2014, Pakistani officials had not been able to verify his identity. Verification of nationality is a prerequisite for the repatriation of the living — and the dead.
Bharat Bhushan called upon former Indian Navy chief Laxminarayan ‘Ramu’ Ramdas who was in the audience, to comment on the undefined maritime boundary at Sir Creek, the logic of continuing to arrest fisherfolk and the need to find a more cooperative solution, like joint fishing licenses.
Reiterating that both India and Pakistan have agreed to respect the Maritime Boundary Agreement, Admiral Ramdas asserted that the matter is not really in the hands of either the Coast Guard or the navies alone. “Fundamentally, it is a lack of political will on both sides that has to be addressed”.
The extensively researched materials presented at the event by Sapan volunteers included a slideshow In Memoriam with which all Sapan events begin. Presented by Aekta Kapoor in Delhi and Mohammad Waqas in Lahore, the slideshow begins with acknowledging some of the leaders whose vision about regionalism and a visa-free South Asia the organisation is taking forward. It then commemorates the losses due to Covid-19 and other causes across the region in the past month.
Researcher Priyanka Singh in Delhi shared an overview of prison conditions in South Asia and youth activist Sarita Bartaula from Nepal presented a brief outline of best practices in countries around the region. The presentations are online here:
A ten-point Resolution was endorsed by the house, presented by advocate Noman Quadri in Karachi (See Resolution online at this link: Resolution-Rights of Incarcerated)
The human-rights experts panel had to take place in the absence of several renowned advocates who had confirmed their participation. Hina Jilani of Pakistan and Mandira Sharma of Nepal were unable to join at the last minute. Sultana Kamal of Bangladesh had to leave due to a family bereavement caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Details about participants as well as some photos are available at this link: 29 Aug prisoners session pictures and bios.
Nepal citizen Durga Prasad Timsina was arrested in Darjeeling, India, in 1980 on murder charges. The Calcutta high court recently found him unfit to stand trial.
The body of a 38-year-old man, who was believed to be a Pakistani national and had died in January this year while being held at the Joint Interrogation Centre in Bhuj in Kutch, India, was buried inside a burial ground in Jamnagar city in August.
Jailed in Pakistan at 28, Madhya Pradesh man back in India 30 years later.
Bale Chhetri Bhandari left Bardiya in Nepal for India at the age of eight. After switching odd jobs and serving time in a Karachi prison, he returned home after 47 years, freed by a twist of fate.
This paper calls for a proactive strategy for India and Bangladesh to engage in meaningful diplomatic collaboration to reduce the incidence of trespassing by fishermen, in particular through the development of Blue Economy: Finding Solutions to Fishermen Transgressions in the India-Bangladesh Maritime Space | ORF (orfonline.org)
Initiated in March 2021, Sapan is a coalition of organisations and individuals who advocate peace, justice, democracy and human rights in South Asia, working towards a visa-free South Asia.