Describing it as “prima facie unacceptable”, the Gauhati High Court on Tuesday lashed out at the Assam government for converting a section of the Mathia transit camp meant for “illegal foreigners” into a “temporary prison” to house those arrested in the state’s recent crackdown on a child . marriage.
As of February 5, following a shortage of space in existing prisons due to mass arrests in the crackdown, at least 350 people have been imprisoned in Matia, after the state interior minister officially notified part of it as a “temporary prison” until further orders. .
Matia had been operational just a week before, on January 27, with the government transferring 68 “foreigners” to the camp on the orders of the HC.
Gauhati Chief Justice HC Sandeep Mehta told state Solicitor General D Saikia at Tuesday’s hearing, “This is something strange and prima facie unacceptable. What is the justification? If you want to improve your prison capacity, do it where your prisons are built. Why should you turn this detention into a prison?’
The hearing by a bench of Chief Justice Mehta and Justice Soumitra Saikia focused on a series of habeas corpus petitions challenging the detention of convicted and declared foreign nationals in Assam jails.
Challenging the notifications that converted the jails into detention centres, the petitions demanded the release of the detainees. The petitions, which make the case for more humane detention, were filed in 2020 by a team of lawyers and activists, supported by Studio Nilima, a research collective.
The move to shift the “foreigners” to Mathia followed an order by the Gauhati HC (in the same batch of petitions) on November 29 last year – the court directed the government to make the Mathia camp operational as it was “ready for settlement”. . The bench, which then consisted of Justice Saikia and then Chief Justice R.M. Chaya, visited the transit camp.
Subsequent hearings on December 20 and January 27 were postponed.
On Tuesday, the petitioners argued that with Mattia now officially notified as a prison, “all honest that they [government] was filed by the date it was set to be absent.”
“The baby is being thrown out with the bath water… In essence, foreign nationals (proclaimed foreign nationals and convicted foreign nationals) are now being housed alongside citizens who are criminals,” argued the lawyer representing the petitioners.
Advocate General Saikia said he would be instructed and “correct us if we are wrong”. He said: “I have to get updated information, but initially what I found out is that the capacity of this campus consists of 3,000 people. Hardly less than 200 people are there in custody.”
Chief Justice Mehta replied, “You have to do capacity building exercises for prisons… you cannot enter an institution [which is meant] only for persons… who have not been convicted, either [are they] the violators. They may be in the wrong place at the wrong time due to circumstances. “But you can’t keep them with common criminals.”
The next hearing is scheduled for Thursday.