Families worried as riot-related arrests could lead to contracting COVID-19

Lawyers say it is a violation of fundamental rights as detainees are unable to avail legal remedies due to restrictions

April 27, 2020 11:09 pm | Updated 11:10 pm IST - New Delhi

A resident of riot-hit Mustafabad watching while children are busy playing.

A resident of riot-hit Mustafabad watching while children are busy playing.

Many families in riot-hit areas of north-east Delhi fear that those arrested by the police during the nation-wide lockdown could contract COVID-19 while in jail.

“The lockdown is not for the police. It is for us. Who knows one of them has the virus. If we tell them this, they warn us not to teach them the law,” said Farhan, a software engineer living in Chand Bagh. He had not seen his brother since the police took him for questioning on March 31.

Mr. Farhan said his brother is a mechanical engineering student and was taking coaching classes in Mukherjee Nagar for government services.

“The police took my brother without any notice. Later, we came to know that he was arrested as he was featured in a video,” said Mr. Farhan, adding that the irony is that the video is from outside our house and was taken on March 23 when there was no violence.

After the arrest, he was sent to Mandoli Jail. Due to the lockdown, we have no way of knowing how he is, said Mr. Farhan.

Similar story

In adjoining Bhajanpura, 21-year-old Mehnaz had a similar story to tell. “They [police] took him on the pretext of asking some questions and we have not seen him since then,” said Mehnaz.

When the police visited the residence, her brother, who is working as a welder, had gone out to buy medicines. “He has seizures,” said Mehnaz.

“The next day (on April 11), my brother went to the police station around 11 a.m. When he did not return till 7 p.m., we went to the station and were told that my brother will not be released as he was spotted on the riots video,” she said.

Mehnaz said she is worried about the well-being of her brother inside jail, more so in view of the ongoing pandemic, as he had received bullet wound on his back during the riots and has other medical conditions too.

Asif, a resident of Chaman Park, said he has not been able to meet his son who was arrested in connection with the riots in early March due to the lockdown.

He added that others too from his locality are being arrested during the lockdown period. “Most of us don’t know what is happening,” he lamented.

‘Abrogation of rights’

Lawyers providing legal assistance to the riot-hit worry that investigations are on without giving due regard to the health, safety and fundamental rights of the persons concerned. They said the ongoing police actions pose a significant risk to the health of the affected individuals, their families and the public at large in light of the pandemic.

“There has been a complete abrogation of the fundamental rights of the persons concerned as they are unable to avail of the rights that accrue at the stage of summoning, detention, arrest and remand due to the shutdown of courts and unavailability of lawyers,” they said.

Advocates Seema Misra, Sowjhanya Shankaran, Maneka Khanna and Nitika Khaitan had made a representation before a State-level High Powered Committee (HPC), formed pursuant to the Supreme Court direction to decongest prisons due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In their letter, they highlighted that during the lockdown, investigating agencies have summoned several persons to appear at police stations. “We are aware of at least five such cases from localities in north-east Delhi,” the advocates said.

They said many of these summonses note that failure to comply with it would render the person liable for criminal action. However, as per the March 24 lockdown order, ordinary residents and citizens are permitted to step out only for essential supplies such as groceries and medicines, the lawyers argued. “In trying to comply with such summons, its recipients render themselves liable to penal action for violating lockdown orders, and in failing to comply with the summons, they may be liable for penal action,” the lawyers said.

They also said that people have been directed to appear at Crime Branch or Special Cell police stations that are at a considerable distance from their homes, making it extremely difficult for them.

In many cases, the police are detaining people from their homes and neighbourhoods without any notice or information on the grounds of detention and without informing their family members , they alleged. “Moreover, there has been a troubling pattern of the police picking up family members of the person they seek to arrest as proxies and detaining them for hours on end to threaten and coerce such families to produce the person they seek to arrest,” the lawyer said.

They also brought up the issue of police not providing a copy of the FIR.

The HPC on April 18 declined to act on the letter saying, “the members of the committee are of the considered opinion that the submissions advanced in the representation and prayers made therein, are beyond the scope and purview of this committee”.

Advocate Khaitan said a similar letter highlighting the above issues has been sent to the High Court for its consideration and the response is awaited.

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