‘SIMI operatives’ in Bhopal jail being mentally and physically tortured: NHRC
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has accused Bhopal central jail officers of subjecting suspected operatives of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) to physical and mental torture after sending two three-member panels to the prison last year to investigate possible human rights violations.
The NHRC teams visited the prison, where 21 alleged SIMI operatives were lodged, in June and December. Surveillance of the prisoners increased significantly after eight of their colleagues escaped under controversial circumstances in October 2016 only to be killed in a police encounter soon afterwards. The rights watchdog sent the teams to the prison to probe complaints of torture and mistreatment levelled by relatives of these inmates.
The teams found that the 21 were being “mentally and physically tortured”. The reports also noted that repeated calls to attention in the middle of the night prevented the inmates from sleeping properly.
The surveillance on the alleged SIMI operatives increased significantly after eight of their colleagues escaped under controversial circumstances in October 2016, only to be killed in a police encounter soon afterwards. The rights watchdog had deployed the team following complaints of torture and mistreatment levelled by relatives of these inmates.
The NHRC teams further stated that the allegations of assault and tortured levelled by the alleged SIMI operatives against the prison authorities were not unfounded, and they were often made to shout anti-religious slogans against their will.
“The jail doctor seems to have helped the jail authorities cover up instances of torture by omitting crucial details from their medical records,” the findings further stated.
The initial NHRC report, filed after the first team’s visit to the prison in June, offered a bleak picture of the circumstances in which the alleged SIMI operatives were forced to exist. It stated: “After the jail break, prison conditions have changed drastically. These inmates are allowed to go to their cells only for 10-15 minutes. They are not allowed to talk to anyone. Their cells are fitted with exhaust fans, but they are not switched on. The injury marks on the prisoners’ bodies could only have been a result of assaults in jail. The prisoners are required to give khairiyat (a way of showing one’s presence in the barracks in response to the sentry’s call) every four hours, but in the Bhopal jail, it is done every one-to-two hours – depriving them of necessary sleep.”
Another NHRC team that visited the prison in December 2017 didn’t find any signs of physical torture, but noted that the inmates were being mentally tortured through solitary confinement.
“SIMI prisoners are not permitted to converse with each other. Two prisoners alleged that they were forced to chant anti-religious slogans, and jail staffers often pulled at their beards. They also complained that the guards would verbally abuse them and disrespect the holy book,” it observed, adding that the human rights of these inmates were being violated in the name of security.
The first NHRC team’s report had asked the state government to constitute a high-level committee to address the grievances of the 21 SIMI operatives lodged in the Bhopal central jail.
However, prison authorities insisted that the rights watchdog’s findings do not reflect the whole truth. “The NHRC team has submitted a one-sided report of their June visit. We submitted a point-to-point rebuttal of its first report in January 2018. The matter is pending before the NHRC. We were asked to respond to the first report only,” said director general (jail department) Sanjay Choudhary.
His denial, however, failed to reassure the prisoners’ relatives. “Our loved ones in the Bhopal jail are suffering from several behavioural disorders, such as anxiety, depression and frustration, due to solitary confinement. Even the jail doctor admitted that conditions like these cause some prisoners to become aggressive and others to descend into depression,” said Saira Bano, mother of one of the inmates.
Her concerns were echoed by Madhuri, a social activist. “Such shocking treatment of prisoners, especially undertrials, is not only illegal but also unconstitutional and violative of Supreme Court guidelines. It raises serious questions regarding the erosion of our democratic values in recent years. The report was sent to the state government in October, and the fact that no action was taken in this regard indicates its complicity in the matter,” she said.
Madhuri also expressed dismay over the NHRC not taking any action in this regard. “We urge them to do so at the earliest. The report has been languishing before the commission for the last nine months,” she said.
The social activist further said that while the NHRC team wants the constitution of a high-level committee under a secretary-level officer to look into the grievances of these inmates, their relatives are in favour of an independent committee presided by a retired judge.
The NHRC had held full-bench hearings in this regard on January 3 and March 12.
Meanwhile, female family members of the undertrials have alleged that prison officials misbehave with them when they go on visits. “During the meeting, we were asked to submit our photographs and Aadhaar card. Some of them even photographed us with their mobile phones after making us remove our veils. We feel harassed every time when we go there,” said Amreen Bi, a resident of Maheedpur in Ujjain.
Advocate Syed Sajid Ali said undertrials cannot be kept in solitary confinement under any circumstances. “Even with convicted prisoners (even those under death sentence), it can be done only for a fixed number of months,” he added.
Another advocate, Sajid Siddiqui, said lawyers were not being allowed to meet their clients in private – thereby affecting their legal defence strategies.