A plea was submitted to Chief Justice of India SA Bobde, seeking the release of all those who were “declared” foreigners from the six detention centres in Assam amid the escalating crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, Live Law reported on Wednesday. The plea was submitted by Justice and Liberty Initiative, an organisation that provides legal aid to people who were unable to prove their citizenship during the National Register of Citizens exercise carried out in Assam.

Citing Article 21 of the Constitution, the plea claimed that even if the people lodged in detention centres are deemed as foreigners, they are human beings who have the “basic right to live” and not die of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The organisation highlighted the “despicable living conditions” there and said that many of the detenus are old and ailing.

On March 11, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai told Rajya Sabha that there are 802 people in six detentions centers in Assam. Ten people detained in these centres have died in 12 months between March 2019 and February 2020, the organisation observed. In the light of the coronavirus pandemic, the detainees will be “more vulnerable in the already crowded detention centres”, the plea added.

Referring to the Supreme Court order directing all states and Union Territories to release a section of prisoners on parole to avoid congestion in jails and increasing the risk of spreading the Covid-19 infection, the petition demanded that similar benefits should be extended to those “declared to be foreigners facing perpetual detention” in Assam.

The Assam government should also be directed not to detain anymore “declared foreigners” until the health crisis in the country subsides, it added.

It highlighted that detention in foreigners detention centre is not an imprisonment due to a criminal act, but is tantamount to civil imprisonment. Detention is supposed to be a temporary measure before the deportation of the person to the country of origin. “Moreover, many of the detenus have challenged the Foreigners Tribunals orders which are pending either before the High Court or the Supreme Court”, the plea claimed.

The Assam government recently announced that it had postponed the process of issuing rejection slips to those who have been excluded from the final NRC because of the coronavirus pandemic, NDTV reported. The rejection slips will mention the reason for the exclusion of the person from the register. The process of issuing the slips was scheduled to begin on March 20.

The final list of the National Register of Citizens was published in Assam on August 31 last year. It left out 19 lakh people, or 6% of Assam’s population. People excluded from the list have the option of applying to Foreigners’ Tribunals established in the state, within a period of 120 days.

The Citizenship Amendment Act, approved by Parliament on December 11, makes citizenship smoother for refugees from six minority religious communities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, provided they have lived in India for six years and entered the country before December 31, 2014. The Act has been widely criticised for excluding Muslims, leading to protests against it. The government has also proposed a nationwide NRC exercise.

Meanwhile, the toll in the coronavirus epidemic in India rose to 13 on Thursday, and the total number of infections increased to 649, according to the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.