Noted academics, lawyers, Nobel laureates, and members of several European parliaments have written an open letter marking the Supreme Court of India, the Prime Minister office and the offices of several other courts and state governments urging them to release all those political prisoners arrested in relation with the Bhima Koregaon case.

In the open letter, they have expressed concerns over the rising number of Covid-19 cases in Indian prisons, the overcrowded condition, and inadequate access to health care inside the prisons.

The letter is signed by prominent international figures, like Noam Chomsky, Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk, José Antonio Guevara-Bermúdez, the Former President of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and others.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the letter has stated, the only way to protest the lives and dignity of the prisoners is their release from pre-trial detention.

The statement has highlighted the Bhima Koregaon 16 and has warned that the failure to “release these human rights defenders would be in violation of the state’s constitutional duty to safeguard the life of these citizens.”

So far the 16 people arrested in relation to the Bhima Koregaon case include writers Sudhir Dhawale and Varavara Rao, Professors Shoma Sen and Hany Babu, advocates Arun Ferreira and Sudha Bharadwaj, activists Mahesh Raut, Vernon Gonsalves, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling and Gautam Navlakha, Father Stan Swamy, scholar Anand Teltumbde, and Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Ghaichor and Jyoti Jagtap, the members Kabir Kala Manch.

The entire statement is as below:

We urge the immediate release of human rights defenders in India into safe conditions

? Accounting for almost a third of deaths from Covid-19 worldwide, the situation in India is grave. We are alarmed that a number of human rights defenders who are currently awaiting trial in Indian jails have developed serious health issues in jail owing to over-congestion and neglect, absence of appropriate medical care, and deplorable hygiene conditions. These political prisoners are now at great risk of contracting the virulent strain of the virus -- which some have already contracted -- and will have no access to prompt medical care that is necessary to save lives. We therefore urgently seek that the temporary administrative order to release prisoners due to the pandemic be applied to political prisoners in India. We strongly believe that by turning a blind eye to the toll exacted by Covid on those it holds in its custody, the government is in violation of its constitutional duty to safeguard the life of these citizens.

Among the thousands in India arrested for “political offences” is a group known as the Bhima-Koregaon (BK)-16: four academics, three lawyers, two independent journalists, a union organizer and social activist, a poet, three performing artists, and a Jesuit priest. A majority of them are senior citizens, some of whom have comorbidities that render them particularly vulnerable. All are human rights defenders with a record of writing, speaking and organizing for the rights of workers, minorities, Dalits, and Adivasis through peaceful and constitutional means. As the deadly second wave of Covid rages, with an equally serious third wave anticipated, the overcrowded prisons face severe water shortage and lack the medical equipment and personnel necessary to fight Covid. At least six of the arrested have contracted Covid-19, others have reported various acute infections and a rapid deterioration of health. Two of the BK-16 were recently shifted to multi-specialty hospitals after intense advocacy from family members and concerned citizens. Last year, one of the 16, an 80-year old poet, received temporary bail on medical grounds after weeks of hospitalization, at a moment when it was feared that he may die in custody.

In a moment of unprecedented national calamity, we ask for decisive action by the government and court to set the BK-16 at liberty to avert further tragedy. When the prison is unable to provide for the health and safety of the prisoners, the family has a right to offer such care as they deem necessary. None of the prisoners is deemed a flight risk. We acknowledge that while the Bombay High Court allowed three of the 16 arrested to be transferred to private hospitals, there is a humanitarian emergency facing all these political prisoners, whose lives are in grave danger from Covid-19.

With this letter, we call on the Indian authorities to take urgent and prompt action:

- Release the BK-16 from overcrowded and unsafe prisons immediately.

- Allow them to be cared for by their kin.

- Show compassion and responsibility in order to avoid catastrophic consequences.

- Ensure them their constitutional right to live and die in dignity.