The Gauhati High Court has asked the Assam government to submit an action taken report on steps taken to set up detention centres outside jail premises.
Assam currently has six detention centres to hold ‘illegal foreigners’ – all inside jails.
As per the latest state government data, the six centres together hold 425 detainees at present. Following Supreme Court’s order in April to prevent congestion in jails due to the Covid-19 pandemic, 350 detainees lodged in different detention centres had been released on bail.
In an order dated October 7, Justice A M B Barua of the HC stated that if suitable government accommodations — meeting the parameters mentioned in two previous communications in 2012 and 2014 from the Union Home Ministry and a subsequent ‘model manual’ for building detention centres — are not available, then authorities may also rent private premises for the purpose.
A detention centre, solely for ‘illegal foreigners’, is under construction in Matia, Goalpara district, around 150 km from Guwahati. It is being built as per guidelines laid down by the Centre, officials said.
The HC order comes in response to a batch of petitions related to detention of ‘foreigners’ in Assam. The petitions were filed by a team of lawyers and activists, facilitated by Studio Nilima, a research collective. Renowned advocate Nilay Dutta argued the case on behalf of the petitioners.
“The provocation for this batch of petitions came at a civil society meeting to discuss the post-NRC scenario in Assam, when one of the participants urged the gathering to contemplate whether the state was on its way to becoming an exhibition site of detention centres for the world,” Abantee Dutta, co-founder and director of Studio Nilima, told The Indian Express.
Advocates Santanu Borthakur, Mustafa Khaddam Hussain and Aman Wadud were associated with this endeavour.
Wadud told The Indian Express, “Foreigners and ‘declared foreigners’ were living under inhuman conditions for 10 years inside crowded jail premises. Although they will continue to be under detention, this order will enable them to move to a place with better amenities.”
Referring to the Supreme Court case Bhim Singh vs Union of India, the HC said that the apex court clearly provided that detainees are to be kept “at an appropriate place with restricted movements pending their deportation/repatriation and the places where they are to be kept may be detention centres, or whatever name such places are called, but must have basic facilities of electricity, water and hygiene”.
From communications sent by the Centre, the HC discerned that “detention centres must be outside the jail premises”, and that the state government has to “ensure that the places where they are being kept must have basic facilities of electricity, water and hygiene, etc, and there is appropriate security at these places”.
The HC said that 10 years have passed since a part of the jail premises in Goalpara, Kokrajhar and Silchar were declared to be detention centres. The order stated: “Certainly a period of more than 10 years cannot be understood to be a temporary arrangement. Even in respect of Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Tezpur, a period of five years is almost over, which also again cannot be strictly said to be a temporary arrangement.”
“Considering the said aspect, it cannot be accepted that the respondents can still rely upon the communication dated 07.09.2018 to project the case that it would be permissible to declare a part of the jail premises to be detention centres,” the court said.
The communication the court order refers to is one in which the Centre stated that in case establishment of such detention centres outside jail premises is pending, a specific area within the jail premises can be earmarked by the state government to house ‘foreigners’ or ‘illegal migrants’ awaiting deportation as a temporary measure.
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