Guwahati, Jul 23 : The Gauhati High Court on Thursday ordered the Assam government to provide the best treatment to prisoners who have tested positive for COVID-19 after filing a suo motu PIL on rising number cases inside the jails.
Registering the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) after receiving a letter from senior advocate Nilay Dutta, the bench comprising of Chief Justice Ajay Lamba and Justice Manish Choudhury also ordered the Inspector General of Prisons to file an affidavit on the issue and listed the case on September 8 for next hearing.
“We hereby direct the Inspector General of Prisons, Assam to file his personal affidavit clearly indicating — how many covid positive cases have been detected in each of the jails,” the order said.
The affidavit will also have to include points like the precautions taken before the inmates were found to be COVID-positive, the steps being taken for disinfecting the jails and giving treatment to inmates and how many patients are asymptomatic and symptomatic in each of the jails.
“In the meantime, we hereby direct that the best of the measures available with the State of Assam, be employed to give qualitative treatment to the jail inmates across the state so that no further damage is caused.
“We also direct that the persons who have not been detected Covid-19 positive be segregated and be maintained as such so that the disease is not transmitted to them,” the court said in its order.
It also directed to test all the jail inmates across the state for the infection of coronavirus and inform the results to the court accordingly.
“We make it clear that in case affidavit on each of the points is not filed on or before the next date of listing, the Court is likely to impose exemplary cost to be deducted from the salary of the office who is found responsible in causing delay in process of the Court,” it said.
Total 535 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 across 10 jails in the state, of whom the highest — 435 — was detected in Guwahati central jail, Inspector General of Prisons Dasarath Das told PTI.
Among those who tested positive in Guwahati central jail are peasant leader Akhil Gogoi, student activist Sharjeel Imam, and NDFB chief Ranjan Daimary — convicted in 2008 Assam serial bomb blast case.
“The court took the letter of Dutta very seriously. Also, there was a communication from the Nagaon District and Session Judge about the rising number of cases in the jail there and the court considered that as well,” senior advocate Tanmoy Jyoti Mahanta said.
“Considering these two documents, the high court registered the suo motu PIL on July 21 and today was its first hearing,” he added.
The bench took a strong exception to the fact that a huge number of inmates have been infected despite all the jails being very restricted places for outside people, Mahanta said. mentioning the order copy.
“Prima facie it becomes evident that some person from outside has been a carrier and has transmitted the disease within jails. Appropriate precautions and measures were not taken to avoid spread of the virus in the jails,” the court said in the order.
It also pointed out that the jail manual mandates restricted entry with only authorised people allowed to enter the premises and the persons confined in jails are either undertrials or convicts.
“We also direct that the persons who have not been detected Covid-19 positive be segregated and be maintained as such so that the disease is not transmitted to them,” the order copy said.
On July 17, Dutta wrote a letter on behalf of non- profit research group Studio Nilima, comprising of senior advocates, to the chief justice of the Gauhati High Court, highlighting the plight of the inmates infected with COVID-19.
“The unprecedented humanitarian crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic has further intensified and aggravated the already handicapped functioning of the correctional institutions… Assam is also faced with the annual plight of incessant monsoons,” the letter said.
Dutta, who is also the advocate general of Arunachal Pradesh, said that the actual picture of the impact of the disease and the measures taken to handle it is not known in absence of any authoritative report.
Drawing urgent attention of the chief justice, the letter requested to take suo motu cognizance of the issue.
It sought immediate and mandatory testing of all inmates across Assam, the release of COVID-positive prisoners for availing proper medical care and a status report on the steps taken to contain the virus in jails.
Dutta also urged to seek reports from all the district and sessions judges in their capacities as chairpersons of the district legal services authorities after personal inspection of the jails.
“These issues, if not looked into immediately, could lead to catastrophic consequences and therefore, we beg for Your Lordship”s urgent attention and close scrutiny which has the potential of highlighting these pertinent issues to a large extent and we sincerely hope that you will consider the issues in this regard.
“We are hopeful that this would enable us in realising our shared objective of facilitating effective services to the vulnerable and marginalised communities in the correctional facilities across the state of Assam,” he added.