The Gauhati High Court has said people declared as foreigners cannot be kept in jails that serve as detention centres, depriving them of basic human rights and human dignity.
The court has also issued a notice to the Assam government to submit a report on the steps taken to set up detention centres outside jail premises and “hire any private premises” if “suitable government accommodations are not available for the purpose.”
Cluster of petitions
Hearing a cluster of petitions filed on behalf of people lodged in Assam’s six detention centres and their kin, the High Court referred to a Supreme Court case involving 37 “Pakistani prisoners” while issuing the order on October 7. These prisoners “not required under Indian laws” were kept in jail despite completing their sentence by 2009 because the Pakistan High Commission did not confirm their nationality.
The High Court ruled that jails being used as detention centres were in conflict with the model manual for such centres. It referred to the apex court’s observation that detainees should be kept in an “appropriate place with restricted movements” pending their deportation or repatriation and provided basic facilities of electricity, water, hygiene, etc.
“Further, the requirement is that such detention centres/ holding centres/ camps should be set up outside the jail premises. The State government is also to ensure ... appropriate security at these places,” the court’s order read.
Taking note of the absence of designated detention centres, the Bench of Justice Achintya Malla Bujor Barua said: “... If appropriate suitable accommodation is not available and the acquisition of land and construction is pending for the purpose of setting up the detention centres, the State government may hire suitable building for setting up the detention centres.”
The Army’s retired junior commissioned officer, Mohammed Sanaullah, who spent a few days in the Goalpara detention centre in 2019 after he was declared a foreigner, said the government “might as well keep people like us” at home and “under surveillance” to save money on hiring private property.
People declared foreigners or “illegal migrants” in Assam are kept across detention centres within six jails where they share space with others serving time for various crimes. These jails are in in Dibrugarh, Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Jorhat, Silchar and Tezpur.
A designated detention centre to house 3,000 people is being built in Goalpara district.
One of the petitions is on behalf of several ailing women who have been declared foreign nationals, while another is on the behalf of a convicted foreign national who has completed his sentence period.
A third petition was filed on behalf of a woman and a man who have not been declared as non-citizens by any of Assam’s 100 Foreigners’ Tribunals or convicted under any law.
The cases are being represented by human rights activist and lawyer Santanu Borthakur and the relatives of the jailed Dipika Sarkar and Nurut Zaman Dewan.