Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – A prominent pro-freedom leader in Indian-administered Kashmir, Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai, has died inside a hospital in southern Jammu city, where he was in detention for the last year. He was 77.
An official from the Government Medical College hospital in Jammu said that the report for COVID-19 was negative but he had developed “respiratory stress”. India has witnessed record coronavirus infections and deaths in the past several weeks.
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All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), an amalgam of pro-freedom groups in the region, accused authorities of not taking his health condition seriously.
“Despite repeated appeals to release political prisoners lodged in various jails on humanitarian grounds in view of the devastating Covid catastrophe, authorities are playing with their lives,” the statement said.
Sehrai was the president of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, a pro-freedom group in Kashmir that advocates the merger of Kashmir with neighbouring Pakistan. He was detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA), a law that allows detentions without trial for up to one year.
Sehrai was a long-time deputy of Syed Ali Geelani, one of the most influential Kashmir resistance leaders who has remained under house arrest for years.
Sehrai spent most of his life as a close aide of Geelani and their association dates back to the 1960s when they were part of Jamat-e-Islam, a local version of Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen or Muslim Brotherhood.
India jailed thousands of Kashmiris, including prominent resistance leaders, as part of its massive crackdown in the wake of the removal of the Himalayan region’s limited autonomy on August 5, 2019. India’s only Muslim region is now directly ruled by the country’s home ministry.
India claims it conducted local body elections in the region but critics say the local bodies have no legislative powers.
Sehrai’s younger son Junaid Ashraf was the top commander of the Pakistani-based rebel outfit, Hizbul Mujahideen. Ashraf was killed in a gunfight in the main city of Srinagar in May 2019. Sehrai was detained and jailed a few months later.
‘Not allowed to meet’
Lodged inside Udhampur jail, 200km (124 miles) from his home, his family says they have not been able to see him for five months as the meetings in the jails were barred due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
His son Mujahid Sehrai said that the family was informed last evening about his father’s deteriorating health.
“We got a call that he is suffering from loose motion and has been shifted to hospital. I booked tickets and reached Jammu in the afternoon. Since then, I am waiting for the body and we have been told they have some formalities to complete. We have not been able to see his face,” he told Al Jazeera.
Mujahid said that his father suffered from multiple ailments including bronchitis and his conditions worsened in jail.
“We would send him medicines every month from home. We had also filed a medical petition in court and appealed that he be allowed to get the medical treatment, but to no avail,” he said.
Mujahid said that his father was allowed to make a call once a week but from the last two weeks they did not get any call.
“The last time when he spoke, he told us he was having pain in his body and was feeling weak. He was fasting and they were not getting proper food in the jail,” Mujahid said.
Last week, the wife of another jailed separatist leader Ayaz Akbar died of cancer at her home. But Akbar, according to his family, was not allowed a parole to attend her funeral.
With the second wave of the pandemic sweeping across India, the families of Kashmiri prisoners have been demanding that their kin lodged in jails in different parts of India be released on parole, fearing for their safety.
Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of the region, has also demanded that political detainees should be immediately released.
“The least GOI can do in such a dangerous circumstance is to immediately release these detainees on parole so that they return home to their families,” she tweeted in the wake of Sehrai’s death addressing the government of India.
The Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association (JKHCBA), a body of lawyers in the region, in a statement, termed it “custodial death” and demanded an independent probe into the cause of Sehrai’s death.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, the JKHCBA said they had filed three applications before the court highlighting Sehrai’s serious heart ailments. “Surprisingly, no orders were passed on the three applications,” the statement said, adding that the association is deeply concerned about the casual approach of courts in dealing with “liberty matters and judicial apathy”.