Thursday, February 26, 2009

Preventive Detention in Meghalaya

My previous post focused on the challenges that the Bush administration's preventive detention policies pose for the Obama administration. This is in part because individual lawyers who now occupy positions in government (including President Obama) have previously stated their principled objection to such laws.

A consistent objection raised by opponents of preventive detention laws is that they confer vast discretionary powers upon executive officials which, coupled with the pro-government bias throughout the system of administration that is devised to implement such laws, provide both temptation and incentives for their abuse by the officials who are empowered under such laws. These opponents cite empirical evidence which show that preventive detention laws have historically been abused to target groups of people who did not at all fall within the proper domain of such laws.

The latest (Feb 28) issue of Tehelka features an article that focuses on the record of the Meghalaya Preventive Detention Act (“MPDA”), and argues that the record of implementation of this preventive detention law in contemporary Meghalaya bears out the truth and forcefulness of this objection. Teresa Rehman relies on interviews with activists and lawyers in Meghalaya to argue that“a cross-section of people including activists, NGOs, pressure groups, political adversaries, juveniles and even pickpockets” have been detained under the MPDA." Rehman notes that pursuant to a 2005 amendment,

The Act allows the state government or District Magistrate to detain a person for up to three years “with a view to prevent him from acting in any manner prejudicial to the security of the state or to the maintenance of public order or of supplies and services essential to the community”. Records from the Registrar’s office at the Shillong Bench of the Gauhati High Court show that in 2008, 12 MPDA cases were disposed of while two are still pending. “The MPDA is vague as to who can be detained and does not distinguish between militants, activists and criminals. Everything depends on the whims and fancies of the government,” says DDG Dympep, an activist working with an NGO called the Meghalaya People’s Human Rights Council (MPHRC). There have been instances where the government has done away with formalities such as placing representations before review committees and has freed detainees due to public pressure. Those who have no one to speak up for them may languish in prison for three long years.

Detainees are usually immediately shifted to jails in remote districts such as Tura Jail in West Garo Hills district, William Nagar Jail in East Garo Hill district or the Jowai District Jail in the Jyantia hills. As a result, relatives find it difficult to meet them and detainees cannot easily consult lawyers. Sometimes, they are also sent to jails in neighbouring states. Moreover, jails in Meghalaya are in an appalling condition.

In 2001, the MPHRC conducted a survey to investigate the problems detainees face. This revealed that detainees, convicts and undertrials are kept together in three dilapidated wards. It also states that the condition of detainees and convicts is slightly better than that of undertrials, who do not get proper food and are - served rotten and discarded vegetables.

The entire piece is worth reading, and Tehelka is to be commended for maintaining its focus on such issues which are often neglected by mainstream media outfits.

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