The Bombay High Court on Monday issued notices to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the Maharashtra government and sought their responses on the plea filed by Varavara Rao’s co-inmates, who sought that they should be tested for Covid-19 too as they were in close contact with Rao at Taloja Central prison.
After Rao tested positive for coronavirus, activists Vernon Gonsalves (61) and Anand Teltumbde (68) — the two co-accused in the Elgaar Parishad case — moved HC last Friday.
A criminal writ plea filed through senior counsel Mihir Desai and advocate Devyani Kulkarni stated, “An inmate (Rao) at the prison, with whom the petitioners (Teltumbde and Gonsalves) were in close contact with, has tested positive and thus there is an urgent need to conduct swab tests for the petitioners and make arrangements for them accordingly.”
Teltumbde and Gonsalves further said that being senior citizens and having comorbidities, they are under an imminent threat of contracting Covid-19 or have already contracted and therefore are under grave risk and danger to their lives.
The petition requested the court that it should decide on two issues, namely, whether the two should be shifted to a hospital and immediately tested for Covid-19 and kept in isolation for the safety of the public and whether the two should be physically isolated to ensure physical distancing is maintained.
Stating this, the duo sought direction from the Court to the state government authorities that their Covid-19 swab tests be conducted at earliest. Furthermore, they sought to be kept in isolation within jail hospital maintaining due physical distancing and all such required steps may be taken depending on the outcome of the test.
On Monday, Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh representing NIA opposed the plea and said that petitioners have to comply with protocols required for Covid-19 testing as laid down in government guidelines and previous court judgments. “Petitioner can certainly be tested if any Covid-19 symptoms are found. Let them consult the doctors,” Singh said. However, he said that he had no difficulty if the Court passed relevant orders based on the plea.
To this, Senior Counsel Desai said that petitioners were seeking limited relief for the Covid-19 test and were not pressing for release on bail at this stage.
A division bench led by Justice S S Shinde referred to increasing Covid-19 cases in prisons and recent instances of Taloja Central Prison inmates who tested positive for Covid-19 after their death and said that the request made by petitioners appeared to be ‘reasonable’. However, the Court said that it was not passing interim orders at the moment.
After ASG Singh and Public Prosecutor Deepak Thakare sought time to take instructions on the same, the Court issued notices to NIA and state government and posted further hearing on Thursday, July 23.
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