Twenty-five Bangladeshi fishermen from Kurigram, stuck in an Assam jail for two months without trial, have little hope of returning home soon while another already has died in custody.
As they languish in a foreign jail, their family members in Beparipara village of Chilmari upazila suffer from uncertainty over their fate as well as poverty and hunger. The men are the lone wage earners in the family.
The families and also rights activists call for their immediate release and reparation.
Although the 26 had valid passports and visas when they entered India, the country's sudden lockdown placed them in a difficult position. They were trying to get to the border to return to Bangladesh in May when they got arrested.
One of them, 55-year-old Bokul Mian died of a heart attack on Wednesday in a hospital where he was taken the previous evening with complaints of chest pain, according to local police.
The fishermen went to Assam individually to meet their relatives in the months leading up to the outbreak of Covid-19 in the region. They had valid passports with tourist visas and had crossed over through the Changrabandha border in December 2019 and in January and February this year.
"It is fairly common among those living in Chilmari to visit their relatives in Assam during the dry season. Similarly, people from Assam also come here to meet their relatives. Movement like this has been going on since Partition in 1947," said Nahid Hasan, a human rights activist based in Chilmari.
"If there was no Covid-19 situation, they would not have faced any problem at all."
Family members of the imprisoned Bangladeshis said the men had learnt that the border check post would be open for three hours on May 3, said SM Abraham Lincoln, advocate and convener of the Bangladesh-India Border Victim Rescue Legal Assistance Forum, who has been keenly monitoring the case.
Lincoln, who provides legal assistance to victims of border issues, said, "I have gone through their previous records. They were never involved in any illegal activities in Bangladesh."
They were unable to make it to the border, however, and were arrested at the Bahalpur check post in Dhubri district of Assam.
"All the 26 Bangladesh nationals had come from Jorhat district of Assam and headed towards the India-Bangladesh border along Dhubri in two mini buses for returning to their home country," said Sarfaraj Hoque, additional deputy commissioner of Dhubri, to The Daily Star on June 19.
They were put into institutional quarantine and a case was registered, accusing them under section 14(b) of the Foreigners (Amendment) Act, 2004 and section 12.1(a) of the Passports Act, 1967, he added.
Dhubri police also claimed that the men violated their tourist visa conditions by working while in Assam.
"The Bangladeshis illegally engaged in work and commercial activity like fishery at various places in Jorhat. So, it is a violation of visa rule. Secondly, they also misled the district authority to procure lockdown passes to travel during lockdown. That is a lockdown violation. So, the case has been registered on both grounds," said Sarfaraj.
Dr Shah Mohammad Tanvir Monsur, assistant high commissioner of Bangladesh to Guwahati, Assam, who visited the arrested fishermen in jail in Dhubri, said, "They burst into tears when they saw me. They were extremely worried about their family members in Bangladesh as they were the only earners in their families."
A lawyer has been appointed by the Assam state legal service authority, and the high commission is taking the necessary steps to ensure that they get adequate legal services, he added.
However, as of writing this report, police have not submitted the charge sheet and as a result, no legal procedures can be initiated to release them.
"Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, legal activities have slowed down as the court proceedings are conducted online. For this reason, it is uncertain how much time it would take to get a fair trial unless their cases are considered with sympathy," said Kirity Roy, a human rights activist based in Kolkata and secretary of Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM).
On Bokul Mian's death, Kirity said it was because of the negligence of the administration, and "a clear case of custodial death".
"We urge them to follow 176/1/A of CrPC [Criminal Procedure Code] and the inquest should be done by the judicial magistrate. In this incident, the NHRC [National Human Rights Commission] guideline for custodial deaths should be followed in true spirit. We also demand that the guidelines of the Minnesota Protocol be followed."
FAMILIES IN DESPAIR
"Both of my sons are in jail. When their mother got to know about their condition, she fell extremely ill. Please do something to bring my sons back," said 65-year-old Lal Mia, father of Md Manik Mia and Md Rezaul Karim.
Manik had just gotten married several months earlier.
"I don't know when he will come back. How shall I survive without him?" asked Salima, his wife.
Losing their lone wage earners, particularly during this downturn, means their families are suffering financially too.
Anwara Begum, 67, is dependent on her sons Anwar Hossain and Raja Mian, both of whom are also among the imprisoned fishermen.
"Without my sons, I have to pass days on other people's mercy. If someone gives me a loaf of bread or some rice, I can eat something and share with my two grandchildren. Otherwise we all have to starve."
PROTESTS ON BOTH SIDES OF BORDER
Rights activists in both India and Bangladesh protested the incarceration of the poor fishermen and demanded their immediate release.
Md Nahid Hasan, chief convener of a local people's committee on rail-river communication and environmental development, organised a human chain in Kurigram on May 13 demanding the fishermen's release.
On June 23, Bharat-Bangladesh Gana Sanghati (India-Bangladesh People's Solidarity) staged a demonstration in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka, the Press Club in Kurigram, and in front of the Bangladesh High Commission in Kolkata demanding their immediate release and repatriation.
MASUM, the Kolkata-based human rights organisation, has submitted an application to the respective government offices in Assam and West Bengal asserting innocence of the Bangladeshi citizens and praying for their release.
"This should be clear that these Bangladeshi nationals are not criminals as they are merely victims in this pandemic. Hence, criminally accusing them is baseless and reflects a grave violation of human rights. Therefore, these charges must be withdrawn immediately and proper arrangements must be made for their repatriation," states the application.
"This crisis calls for special measures and demands solidarity and sympathy towards victims like these people who have no ill-intention to overstay their legitimate duration and treating them as criminals when they need utmost security from this country is absolutely shameful."