False cases, custodial violence: Activists fear Kerala jails are making their own Stan Swamys

Viyyur Central Jail, and the nearby Viyyur High Security Prison, are where a majority of Kerala's UAPA undertrials are kept. Statements by activists and testimonies from prisoners suggest that strip searches and excessive surveillance are common there. Activists fear that the poor conditions within prison could lead to the death of old and sick UAPA undertrials, much like the recent death of Stan Swamy. Wikimedia Commons
31 October, 2021

“Deeply saddened by the passing of Father Stan Swamy,” Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of Kerala, wrote in a tweet after the 84-year-old Jesuit priest and Adivasi-rights activist died in police custody in Maharashtra, in July this year. “Unjustifiable that a man who fought all through his life for our society’s most downtrodden had to die in custody. Such travesty of justice should have no place in our democracy.” While Vijayan expressed his shock about Swamy, he has ignored the struggles of those facing similar charges in Kerala’s jails.

In the past five years, despite seeing nearly no major terrorist or Maoist attacks, the Kerala government registered 145 cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and offences pertaining to sedition and “waging war against the state” in the Indian Penal Code. On 27 October 2021, while replying to a question in the legislative assembly about the number of people charged under the UAPA during his tenure and the details of the charges against them, Vijayan refused to answer. He said, “the details of accused in cases pertaining to national security and which are under consideration of special courts cannot be revealed.” He also refused to answer questions about the number of UAPA undertrials and the amount of time they had spent in prison.

Over six years, courts in Kerala have denied bail to NK Ibrahim, a 67-year-old activist with a serious heart condition, multiple times. In June this year, CK Rajeevan, another activist lodged in Kannur jail, went on a hunger strike to get tested for COVID-19, according to Thankamma, his wife. S Danish, a 32-year-old activist, has received bail in several cases against him, but the Kerala Police Anti Terrorist Squad has repeatedly accused him in fresh UAPA cases to keep him in prison, his lawyer Tushar Nirmal Sarathi, said. In prison, Danish got infected with COVID-19.

The three activists and their lawyers and families have been struggling to maintain their health in prison for the entirety of the pandemic. The lawyers and families of all three inmates told me that they had written multiple times to Vijayan requesting his intervention, but received no response. Many of the allegations of police and prison misconduct were levelled against the Viyyur High Security Prison in Thrissur district. Activist raising concerns about the mistreatment of activists in Kerala have also been targeted by what they claim are false cases.

On 13 July 2015, Ibrahim was arrested by the Kerala Police from Payyoli village in Kozhikode district, accused of being a member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and conspiring to wage war against the state. He was booked for sedition under Section 124A of the IPC and under multiple sections of the UAPA. His family told me that he was working as a helper at a vegetable shop in Payyoli at the time, and had been involved in trade-union activism in the region.

“Ibrahim ikka was at the forefront in the struggle against the forcible eviction of Harrison Malayalam Plantation workers during 1990s,” Ravi, a close friend of Ibrahim from Wayanad district’s Nedumbala village, told me. “While the mainstream labour unions sided with the company, Ibrahim ikka and a handful of others stood strongly with the workers. At least 12 people got arrested in that mass movement.” But Ibrahim’s 28-year-old son, Noufal, an autorickshaw driver, told me that claims about any involvement with waging war against the state were absurd. He said the arrest came as a shock to the family. “I have no clue why he got arrested. The police told me that my father is a Maoist,” he said.

Fifteen days after his arrest, Ibrahim was booked in another case registered by the Kerala Police at Vellamunda police station in Wayanad district. The new FIR accused Ibrahim and two others—Rajeesh and Anoop—of providing hideouts, food and weapons to five Maoist cadre. The FIR went on to claim that on 24 April 2014, the five Maoists, armed with AK-47 rifles, trespassed into the house of AB Pramod, a senior civil police officer, and threatened to kill him if he did not resign from his job and stop helping police in anti-Maoist operations. The police had booked Ibrahim, and all the others allegedly involved, under various sections of the UAPA, IPC and the Arms Act, 1959. All of them have remained in jail for the past six years. In December 2015, the union ministry of home affairs ordered that the case be handed over to the National Investigation Agency, which re-registered both cases on 2 January 2016.

According to the chargesheet in the case, on 6 July 2017, Rajeesh, the sixth accused in the case, gave a statement before the Kakkanad judicial first class magistrate court under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The evidence against Ibrahim is mainly based on the Rajeesh’s statement, in which he claimed to have overheard Ibrahim saying, “Today, we have a mission assigned by our party against a person. Let’s see if he will learn the lesson.” The chargesheet claimed the party being referred to is the CPI (Maoist). Sarathi, who is also Ibrahim’s lawyer, is a member of the Kerala-based human rights organisation Janakeeya Manushyavakasha Prasthanam—People’s Human Rights Forum. He told me that evidence against Ibrahim was scanty so the NIA was relying on approvers to make their case. “There is no witness to substantiate the case of conspiracy, weapon, and food transportation,” Sarathi said. “Rajeesh confessed that they transported a bag to Wayanad. He assumed that there was a weapon inside it considering the weight and shape of the bag, but that too is flimsy evidence since Rajeesh never looked inside the bag.” Sarathi told me that in multiple recent cases, the NIA had used approvers to prosecute UAPA undertrials.

Ibrahim is a heart patient with diabetes and symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. On 16 July 2021, a medical board at the Government Medical College Hospital, Thrissur, examined him and noted that while his condition was stable, there is always an “increased risk of future cardiovascular care.”

When I visited his home in Wayanad’s Nedumbala area, on 26 July, his 26-year-old daughter-in-law, Mubashira, told me about his health issues. “Uppa”—father—“takes 22 tablets every day,” she said. “His diabetes is still not under control. He lost almost all teeth and the remaining few got extracted to fix dental implants. As his tooth got removed as a side effect of diabetes, he is surviving on chapattis dipped in mildly hot water, tea.” The medical board’s report also noted that Ibrahim had complained of difficulty in chewing after a recent tooth extraction. Mubashira told me, “He suffered two cardiac arrests inside the jail. He was unable to eat vegetables and meat. The Kerala red rice, served in the jail, is causing him digestive issues.”

In late 2019, Ibrahim was allowed to visit his home during a short parole. Pathukutty, his 77-year-old mother-in-law, told me that when he came home, it became clear just how poorly his health had fared in jail. “I am afraid that we will lose him forever if he was jailed for one more year,” she said. “His health was perfectly alright before he went to jail. He was a hard-working man. During the short-term parole visit, he seemed like a skeleton. He requires proper treatment. His children and in-laws will pool in money and we will take him to a private hospital if he gets released.”

Even the parole visits, Ibrahim’s family told me, were short and heavily monitored. “On first parole, he came home at around 10 am with tight police security and left around 5 pm on the same day,” Noufal, Ibrahim’s son, said. “The second parole was in January 2020 and it lasted hardly for three hours. He reached home around 11 am and the police asked him to return by 2 pm.” On both instances Ibrahim was granted parole to meet his four grandchildren—all of whom were born after his arrest. “He barely got any time with them,” Noufal told me. Mubashira, Ibrahim’s daughter-in-law, told me that in phone calls, her father still spoke about how he yearned to see his grandchildren again.

CP Rasheed, the state secretary of JMP, told me that Ibrahim’s health had continued to worsen in jail. “Ibrahim has lost seven kilos in ten days after his teeth got removed due to the severe diabetes condition,” Rasheed said. “On 16 July, the jail hospital authorities took the measurement to implant artificial teeth. They are yet to implant his teeth. He struggles to eat food. He is finding it difficult to wake up in the morning. He is drained out of energy and exhausted. He got shivering during the online trial. After the request by his co-accused Roopesh, the court stopped the hearing and allowed him to eat food and resumed the trial later.”

On 16 March 2021, the Supreme Court directed all states and union territories to constitute high-powered committees to consider releasing prisoners and undertrials to decongest prisons in the wake of coronavirus pandemic. Following the directive, the Kerala government ordered the release of thousands of prisoners on parole or interim bail. However, the government decided to exclude prisoners accused under the UAPA, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, and sexual assaults against children and human trafficking. While the accused in many other serious crimes, such as the Sister Abhaya murder case and TP Chandrasekaran murder case, got parole, UAPA prisoners were denied bail and parole.

“UAPA prisoners are deprived of all fundamental rights,” Sarathi told me. “The judicial principle ‘bail is the rule and jail is an exception,’ does not apply to the UAPA prisoners. They are being lodged in high-security prisons. The state intends to have total dominance over their body and thought. Pandemic doesn’t discriminate between prisoners. Their life is also at risk during pandemic.” Citing Ibrahim’s severe health conditions and his vulnerability to COVID-19, PA Shyna, another lawyer, moved an application for his bail in the Kerala High Court.

This was not the first time that bail applications had been moved for Ibrahim with regards to his worsening health. So far, Sarathi had moved four bail applications at the NIA Special Court in Ernakulam, and other advocates including Shyna had moved two applications at the Kerala High Court. All of them were turned down. The fourth bail application termed the NIA Special Court’s repetitive dismissal of Ibrahim’s bail applications as “illegal, irregular and against the end of justice.” The fact that Ibrahim was arrested based on minimal evidence was also repeated in the bail application. Ibrahim’s bail plea is still due to be heard in the Kerala High Court. 

On 2 June 2021, Ibrahim’s wife, Jameela, wrote a letter to Vijayan asking to grant interim bail to her husband under humanitarian grounds. The letter went unanswered. Prominent cultural activists and writers including the filmmaker Rajeev Ravi, the feminist historian and social activist J Devika, the poet K Satchidanandan, the poet Anvar Ali, the leftist intellectual Sunil P Elayidom, the poet Rafeeq Ahmed, the Dalit activist Sunny M Kapikad, the writer Kalpatta Narayanan, and the poet Meena Kandasamy, among others, also wrote to the chief minister, demanding Ibrahim’s release. “Nobody from the government replied to us,” Mubashira told me. “Our CM was very vocal about prisoners from other states. Uppa’s trial begun only after the intervention of these cultural activists on 26 June.” Shyna told me that Ibrahim was “another Stan Swamy in the making.”

On 21 October 2020, a Kozhikode sessions court discharged Ibrahim in one of the cases against him on technical grounds, as there were procedural lapses from the prosecution. But the trial in the 2014 case is still being heard.

Sarathi told me that Ibrahim had faced several human-rights violations inside the high-security section of the Viyyur prison where he was initially lodged. He said that this primarily started after Ibrahim and ten others decided to boycott an Independence Day celebration at the prison citing its violation of COVID-19 protocols. “As an act of vengeance, the jail superintendent ordered to remove the beds of all the prisoners who boycotted the Independence Day celebration,” Sarathi told me. “All of them were locked up in their cell for more than 14 days. They were not allowed to talk to other inmates and their family over the phone for more than two weeks.” Allan Shuaib, another UAPA prisoner who later got released on bail, confirmed Sarathi’s account.

In September 2020, the NIA trial court pulled up the Viyyur jail administration for the violation. The jail superintendent told the court that the prisoners disrespected the celebration by making noises either from the cell or corridor at the time of flag hoisting. After examining CCTV footage from the prison, the court noted “None of the available video footage reflect a situation of shouting, clambering or even chattering by any of the inmates … The video does not show any possibility of disturbance caused to the function at the instance of the petitioner or anybody else.” The court found the allegation by the prisoners was true and serious and referred the matter to the high court. B Sunilkumar, the prison superintendent of Viyyur High Security Prison, refused to comment on the issue. Sarathi added that following the incident Ibrahim was also put into solitary confinement, from which he has since been released.

From the experiences of the UAPA prisoners in Viyyur whose cases Shyna helped with, she surmised that the purpose of the prison was to, “keep political prisoners under cellular confinement for years together to isolate them and break their determination.” She said, “The jail opened in July 2019, and is a three-storied facility that can house about 530 inmates with at least 60 solitary confinement cells. Currently, there are at least 160 prisoners lodged at the prison. The prison is built to lodge high-risk prisoners, mainly UAPA accused. The government had neither issued any notification in respect to the high-security prison’s structure, construction, quality and quantity of the food to be served or operation nor modified any rule exclusively for it.”

On 28 January 2021, Sarathi submitted a petition on Ibrahim’s behalf asking for a transfer from the Viyyur High Security Prison to Viyyur Central Jail, situated 1.7 kilometres away and is less restrictive. The petition read, “The situation of remaining locked for most hours in a day has become unbearable for the petitioner and he is on the verge of a psychological breakdown. Petitioner is suffering from various health problems and the conditions in the high-security prison is weakening his mental and physical health. Hence this petition.” After hearing the petition, the court ordered to transfer Ibrahim to the Viyyur Central Jail.

Ibrahim’s family were able to see the 67-year-old UAPA undertrial only twice since his arrest in 2015. When Ibrahim came home during a short parole he had lost a lot of weight and most of his teeth to diabetes. He also suffered multiple cardiac arrests in prison. His family fear he will not survive more than a year in prison. COURTESY AJMAL IBRAHIM

Activists and lawyers also told me about other serious human-rights violations at the Viyyur High Security Prison. An article by HuffPost quotes Roopesh saying that the prison conducts illegal cavity searches and other excesses on undertrials. Roopesh is Shyna’s husband. When I asked Shyna about the strip searches, she said, “Right from the time of their transfer, the undertrial prisoners have undergone various types of harassment and custodial torture in the form of strip search as the only form of body search, continuous cellular confinement, aggressive intrusion on privacy by way of installing CCTV cameras inside the cells for 24×7 surveillance, blocking the outside view through covering the grills of the outside verandah and engaging Scorpions—armed special commandos (anti-Maoist combat)—for body search of the prisoners.” Shuaib told me that he too had faced strip searches while at Viyyur, and Shyna told me Roopesh had shared similar testimony with her.

Rule 30 of the Kerala Prisons and Correctional Services (Management) Act 2010 allows for a body search of prisoners, but the rule specifically mentions that “the search shall be made in such manner as may not subject the prisoner or the person to unnecessary harassment, humiliation or ignominy.” Both Roopesh and Shuaib said the strip searches they underwent were clear violations of this rule. Cellular confinement of prisoners for a majority of the day is a violation of the Rule 225 of the Kerala Prisons and Correctional Services (Management) Rules 2014.

In a court order dated 30 June 2020, the NIA special court had observed that the “indiscriminate stripping while admitting in the jail in a routine manner, cellular confinement during the entire day and the installation of CCTV camera so as even to cover the toilet or bathroom inside the cell, are illegal.” However, testimonies from Shuaib, Roopesh and Danish indicate that indiscriminate stripping, surveillance and cellular confinements still continue at the high-security prison. 

“The prison is the first high-security prison in Kerala. CCTV cameras are established as part of the security measures instructed by the respective security agencies,” Sunilkumar told me.“ According to the jail manual, it is mandatory to do the body search of the inmates whenever they go in and out of the jail. We are just following the rules prescribed in the jail manual.”

A day after Swamy died, the trial on one of Ibrahim and Roopesh’s cases was slated to begin in the NIA special court in Ernakulam. That morning, Roopesh wrote a letter to the special court requesting a one-minute silence to be observed in the court and in Viyyur Central Jail for Swamy. Roopesh wrote that Swamy had greatly inspired him and his death and caused “serious anxiety and concern.” The court rejected the petition.

Shyna told me that Roopesh then held a hunger strike to mark Swamy’s death. She said that Ibrahim too wanted to join the hunger strike, but Roopesh dissuaded him because his diabetes and cardiac issues had grown rather severe. AG Suresh, Viyyur jail’s superintendent is quoted by the New Indian Express saying that no hunger strike took place.

On 25 June, the left-leaning organisations Porattam and Adivasi Samara Sangham organised a press conference in Wayanad district’s Kalpetta town, where they claimed that the Kerala government was using the pandemic to escalate the violation of rights within jails. M Thankamma the secretary of the ASS, spoke about the allegedly false case against her husband CK Rajeevan, and the treatment he faced in Kannur jail. In November 2020, the Kerala Police arrested Rajeevan in four different cases. In one FIR, they claimed that several unidentified people had trespassed and vandalised a villa where Adivasi women had been allegedly sexually abused. The FIR states that the unidentified people allegedly pasted a poster at the villa warning people against misbehaving with Adivasi women. Rajeevan was arrested for the case and charged under the UAPA and the IPC, and the case were transferred to Kerala’s Anti Terrorism Squad. While he was in jail, the Kerala ATS also charged him in three other cases claiming that he had previously taken part in Maoist attempts to convince tea garden workers to demand higher wages and in an attack against a bank, where they allegedly burnt bank records.

Laiju VG, Rajeevan’s lawyer, told me that all the cases against him were based on weak allegations. “In the second case, the main allegation is that Rajeevan and others distributed pamphlets,” he said. “The FIR didn’t mention loot, threatening, or any sort of things. In the bank case, only Rajeevan is facing the trial. All others were out on bail. The police have never recovered a weapon or managed to prove Rajeevan’s membership with the Maoist party. Even if Rajeevan destroyed the window panes of a private resort, how can that amount to an anti-national crime?”

Thankamma told me that Rajeevan was initially lodged in Kannur jail with a mentally unstable inmate who received no care and was tough to live with. “Rajeevan told me that he was unable to sleep because his cell mate made noises the whole night,” Thankamma told me. “After he complained to the superintendent, Rajeevan got transferred to another political prisoner, Chaitanya’s room. Chaitanya was then suffering from fever and physical exhaustion. Rajeevan requested the jail authorities to take him to the hospital, but they didn’t.”

Thankamma told me that Rajeevan and Chaitanya observed a hunger strike to convince the authority to take them to hospital and conduct a COVID-19 test. “As the test result got delayed even two days after the test, Rajeevan went on hunger strike again,” Thankamma said. “The jail authorities finally released the test result and it showed that Chaitanya tested positive for COVID-19. Chaitanya was taken to the quarantine inside the jail.” Thankamma told me that even at the height of the pandemic, inmates at Kannur were not being given soap and that only after protests by her husband and after she spoke to Rishiraj Singh, who was Kerala’s director general of prisons at the time, was soap finally given.

Thankamma said the very next day after she spoke to the DGP, jail officials visited Rajeevan’s cell. Thankamma said she then got a call from Rajeevan saying that he was afraid that he might be shifted to another jail. His jail passbook—used by prisoners to buy items from the jail canteen—had got terminated that morning. “In the middle of the call, I overheard the sound of the officers asking Rajeevan to prepare for Viyyur,” Thankamma recalled. Kannur jail superintendent Romeo John told me that that day the prisons DGP gave the order to transfer Rajeevan to the Viyyur High Security Prison. Thankamma told me the transfer was an act of vengeance for asking for soap inside the jail. Multiple calls to Singh’s office and personal number went unanswered.

In a November 2012 judgment, the Supreme Court ruled that prison officials should seek prior permission of the court which remanded the prisoner to a particular jail before transferring them to other prisons. It is unclear if the DGP had sought the permission of the court. Laiju told me that he was not informed about any such permission for the transfer.

“While he was in Kannur central jail, he used to call me once a week to discuss case-related matters,” Laiju told me. “After he got transferred to Viyyur jail, I was unable to contact him through phone.” Thankamma said that the move made it difficult for her to visit her husband. “Going to Thrissur will cost us a lot of money comparing to Wayanad,” she said. “It will take at least two days to go meet him and to return to home.”    

Shantolal, the convenor of Porattam, told me he feared for Rajeevan’s safety inside Viyyur High Security prison. “This is a normal custom inside jails,” he told me. “Whoever questions the rights violations inside the jail are either subjected to disciplinary actions or shifted to another jail.” He recalled that when he was arrested in 2016, a warden had told him that “to welcome a new prisoner in jail, policemen will beat them up so badly as to make them obedient,” Shantolal added, “It’s a primitive form of torture called nadayadi, or footballing. A group of policemen will form a circle around a prisoner and beat him mercilessly. He is forced to stand at the centre and they literally treat him like a football by passing him to the adjacent policeman to beat or kick.”

Rasheed told me that even when lawyers were able to prove the innocence of activists in court, or successfully get them bail, the Kerala Police began to put new false cases against the activists to keep them stuck in prison. He told me that on 8 September 2020, he had been waiting on the doorsteps of the Viyyur High Security Prison with the bail order of S Danish, a Coimbatore native who had been imprisoned in Kerala since his arrest in 2018. At least eleven cases had been registered against Danish. After two long years of legal battles, Danish had been able to get bail on all of the eleven cases. Just as he was about to step out of the jail, Danish was again arrested by Kerala Anti Terrorist Squad from the jail compound in a fresh case that was registered on 29 August 2020, and which Sarathi had not been informed about.

Danish’s mother, 52-year-old Aananthajothi, told me her son was a BCA graduate and that his political life started in the Students Federation of India, in Coimbatore. Later, Rasheed said Danish became associated with an Ambedkar Periyar study circle and actively participated in the protest against the Tamil genocide by the Sri Lankan army. He said that Danish later got more attracted to leftist politics and decided to become an activist, when he was arrested in October 2018 in Kerala’s Palakkad district.

Aananthajothi told me that ever since her son’s arrest the Kerala Police began harassing her. “In December 2018, four policemen in civil dress and two in uniform came to our house in a Kerala registered vehicle,” she said. “They barged into my house and an officer searched every nook and corner of the house. Another officer threatened us to bring the ration card and took a photo of the card. They also asked us to sign on a printed paper. They threatened us that they will send us to jail if we refused to sign.”

In January 2019, Selvakumar, Danish’s 57-year-old father, wrote a letter to Vijayan requesting action against the police officials and protection from them. Selvakumar has suffered several strokes in the past and has been unable to work for 10 years. His wife, who works in a canteen, is the sole breadwinner of the family.

After the arrest outside Viyyur High Security Prison, Danish was taken to Kozhikode sessions court. The court sent him to police custody and after an interrogation, Danish was sent back to the Viyyur High Security Prison. A few days later, Danish tested positive for COVID-19.

“The new arrest was related to a case registered at Thamarassery police station a few years ago,” Rasheed told me. “The accusation is that a group of suspected Maoists, armed with weapons, allegedly visited two houses, distributed pamphlets, and demanded food and money from residents. The police had not named anyone as accused. The police could not identify anyone who visited the tribal colony to propagate Maoism. Soon after the ATS took over the case they added Danish’s name as an accused.” Rasheed alleged that the UAPA case was registered only to ensure that Danish is not released from the jail.

Sarathi told me that the ATS has not been given the full details of the FIR, the first information statement and witness details claiming that the case is confidential. “According to law, only court have the power to declare a witness as protected,” he said. “But here in this case it’s Kerala Police who took the initiative. This is done to ensure that Danish will remain in the prison forever. There are only six independent civilian witnesses, three witness from the family and three neighbours, in the case and around 45 police witnesses. The identity of the civilian witnesses are hidden.”

Detailed queries on the allegations of illegal strip searches, physical torture and surveillance mechanisms in Kerala prisons were emailed to: Vijayan; Sunilkumar; Romeo John; Anil Kanth, Kerala’s director general of police; Shaik Darvesh Sahab, the director general of prisons; R Sajan, the jail superintendent of Viyyur Central Jail; MK Vinodkumar, the deputy inspector general for prisons (North Zone) and the Kochi branch of the NIA. None responded.

Thankamma told me that the Vijayan’s show of support to Swamy was entirely hypocritical. “His government is doing the exact same thing to activists working with Adivasis here,” she told me. “Reacting against the injustice in the society is not a crime. If you look at the history, Adivasis and other downtrodden achieved progress only through repeated struggles and resistance movements. It’s the government who fired at the innocents in Muthanga, Bastar and Nandigram. They are the real culprits. They should face UAPA and other anti-terror laws.”