The plight of prisoners in Manipur: Caught between bail and safety | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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The plight of prisoners in Manipur: Caught between bail and safety

Jun 21, 2024 01:19 AM IST

42 Kuki undertrials in Manipur, released on bail, are trapped in legal limbo due to violence.

The judicial system in Manipur is grappling with a profound dilemma; at its core are 42 Kuki undertrials who have been released on bail by the courts but fine themselves trapped in limbo due to the violence that has singed the northeastern state over the past year.

The desperate voices of these undertrials echo through the confines of the jail’s foreigners’ detention centre(File)
The desperate voices of these undertrials echo through the confines of the jail’s foreigners’ detention centre(File)

These undertrials, hailing from the hill districts of Manipur, are languishing in detention despite court orders for release. The reason -- a persistent fear of violence from other communities that forced them to stay within their wards in Imphal jail, until a month ago when they were moved to the foreigners’ detention centre inside the prison complex, despite all being Indian citizens.

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The state’s only jail is in Imphal, a Meitei-dominated city where Kuki homes are either burnt down or abandoned husks of their former selves. Many have secured release orders months ago but find themselves safer inside jail than outside. They’re caught in a legal limbo because the law offers no provision to detain individuals already granted bail. They remain detained not because of legal stipulations but due to the state’s inability to ensure their safe return home, underlining a legal anomaly that highlights the state’s struggle to reconcile judicial decisions with the harsh realities of the yearlong conflict. Their stories are living testaments to the complexities and challenges facing the administration in a region scarred by deep-seated ethnic fault lines.

Desperate voices

The desperate voices of these undertrials echo through the confines of the jail’s foreigners’ detention centre, painting a vivid picture of despair and longing. Five of them filled out a questionnaire sent by HT through a lawyer. They were duly informed about the questionnaire’s purpose and the answers that HT received bear their signatures.

Kailalmuon, 36, was granted bail by a sessions court in a drug case on January 19. He furnished the required bonds, and release orders were also issued, but he is yet to go back home in Churachandpur district.

“I yearn to go back home to the hills, where my family awaits, but fear keeps me confined within these walls. The bail order feels meaningless when our lives are at stake...I feel unhappy and distressed that I am still inside,” he wrote. Kailalmuon wants the state authorities to ensure his safe return but laments there has been no response from the state machinery so far.

Another inmate highlighted the constant daily dread. Lunthanglen Touthang said he feels unsafe leaving the prison despite securing bail because of his ethnic identity. “I felt happy when I was granted bail, but I am now disappointed for not being able to go back home to Kangpokpi,” he said.

A third undertrial made a heartfelt appeal to the state government: “We are desperate to go back and settle with our families. Please, provide us with safe travel so we can reunite with our loved ones. Ensure our safety,” Paoginmang Khongsai, 22, wrote.

Khongsai was arrested in a drug case and lives in Kuki-dominated Moreh district.

Boigin Guite, 20, even secured an order from the Manipur high court for his immediate release on April 29, but remains in detention. Along with T Lulun Simte, another undertrial who also secured bail, Guite approached the high court in a habeas corpus plea.

Deciding his plea, a high court bench led by chief justice Siddharth Mridul allowed the plea, recording an undertaking from the state government that both Guite and Simte “shall be released forthwith” and that the state shall look into the security they need to go back to their homes in Chandel and Churachandpur respectively.

“I want to go back to my family. I feel unsafe to go out on my own due to the ongoing conflict. I am sad,” wrote Guite.

Khalter Khampa, their lawyer, said they were bewildered by the state’s inaction.

“A constitutional court’s order is yet to be complied with by the state. It’s perplexing,” he said.

The lawyer further noted that while a batch of prisoners were released last month under security, Guite and Simte were not among them. “Their continued detention is not lawful even though safety remains a concern. But it really surprises me that if some of them could be released last month, why not these two?” Khampa asked.

The state government made a similar statement regarding the immediate release of prisoners in at least two other habeas corpus petitions before the high court. On April 24 and May 2 respectively, it assured the court that Lunminthang Haokip and Thangkholen Haokip “shall be released forthwith” but they remain in detention, HT confirmed. Similarly, Mangsuanlien, 21, continues to live in the detention centre, even as he expressed his desire to go back home as soon as possible.

The families of these Kuki undertrials cannot come to receive them due to the ethnic composition and control of the regions they would need to traverse from the hill districts to the state capital.

These testimonies underscore a fundamental human rights issue - the right to freedom and security, which remains elusive for these undertrials despite judicial mandates for their release. While the inability of the state to ensure safe passage for released prisoners reflects a broader failure to protect fundamental rights, their heartfelt appeals for safe passage highlight the urgent need for intervention of the judiciary and government to protect their lives and uphold their rights.

Legal limbo and institutional challenges:

The predicament of these Kuki undertrials exposes critical gaps in the legal and administrative framework of Manipur. Efforts to transport them to their home districts have been marred by secrecy and logistical hurdles. Previous attempts by central forces ended in chaos, with information leaks triggering public protests, roadblocks, and threats of violence around detention facilities.

Jail officials, who did not wish to be named, shed light on the intricacies and challenges of managing these transfers. “In October last year, the information about one such transfer got leaked and all roads to the Sejiwa jail were blocked by armed mobs. The central force had to make a retreat,” one official revealed.

Following this incident, there was no such attempt made until May. “The BSF personnel carried 15 such prisoners to Kangpokpi on May 9. It was done on a trial basis, and we are happy that no untoward incident happened,” the official added.

In the face of escalating violence, the responsibility of ensuring the safe transfer of these undertrials has increasingly fallen on central armed forces. The Border Security Force (BSF) has been instrumental in this role.

“Our primary duty is to protect these individuals and ensure their rights are upheld, but the continuous violence makes it nearly impossible. The state’s machinery is overwhelmed, and we have to rely on central forces like the Army and BSF to do what state police should be doing. The transfers must be conducted discreetly to avoid inflaming the already volatile situation,” said a second jail official.

The transfers of Kuki undertrials are shrouded in secrecy, a veil of discretion that only a handful of top prison officials are privy to. These officials are informed about the transfer plans at the last minute to maintain the highest level of confidentiality and security.

“These clandestine transfers typically occur in the wee hours of the morning, under the cover of darkness when the world is asleep. This timing is strategically chosen to avoid any public attention or unrest, ensuring that the undertrials can be moved without incident,” the second official said.

He further pointed out that it was on the instructions of the state government that such inmates were shifted to the foreigners’ detention centre in May because there is no legal provision to continue their imprisonment in a jail after their release orders were issued.

“All they complain about is going back home. Each one of them, every day, will make the same request. That’s all they enquire about whenever they meet a senior jail official,” the second officer lamented.

A third official rued the broader implications: “These prisoners are frustrated and anxious. They were granted bail, but the violence outside has turned their release into a nightmare. We provide them with telephonic and video call facilities to reassure their families, but it is not enough. Regular counselling sessions are held to maintain harmony inside the jail, yet the fear of what lies beyond these walls persists,” he said.

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The official stressed that regular counselling sessions for the room commanders aim to foster harmony among inmates and remind them that the conflict is instigated by a minority of troublemakers, urging them to transcend ethnic affiliations and maintain hope for a peaceful resolution.

However, these measures offer little solace to the Kuki undertrials who yearn to return to their homes. They demand attention and urgent action from authorities, both from the executive and judiciary, to uphold their constitutional rights and ensure their safe passage to their communities.

Longing for both familial reunion and broader societal peace, Kailalmuon expressed his yearning for peace and a return to normalcy. “I desperately want to go back home and reunite with my family. More than anything, I hope for the restoration of peace in our state. The conflict has torn us apart and we need tranquillity to rebuild our lives,” he said.

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