Over 600 civil society members on Sunday wrote to a committee headed by Justice AA Sayed and called for the temporary release of activist Sudha Bharadwaj and academic Shoma Sen from Byculla Jail in Mumbai due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Both Bharadwaj and Sen have been booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for their alleged role in the Bhima Koregaon violence case. Arguments in bail applications filed by them in the wake on the coronavirus pandemic will be heard on Thursday. They have been booked for allegedly making inflammatory speeches at the Elgar Parishad conclave held at Shaniwar Wada in Pune on December 31, 2017, which triggered violence at Bhima-Koregaon war memorial the next day. The National Investigation Agency took over the case from Pune Police.

In a statement, eminent persons such as historian Romila Thapar, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Brinda Karat, economist Jayati Ghosh, lawyer Indira Indira Jaising, social activist Tushar Gandhi, and others, brought up the committee’s decision to decongest jails in Maharashtra by releasing undertrial prisoners.

“While this clearly benefits a large number of prisoners, it must be pointed out that the principles of natural justice do not permit discrimination between various categories of undertrial prisoners, who present the same vulnerabilities from the point of view of health and age,” they said. “All undertrial prisoners are presumed to be innocent, even those booked under Special Acts, and hence, they must be given the same benefits of relief as those who are booked under other sections of the Indian Penal Code.”

The signatories pointed out that Bharadwaj has a history of hypertension, diabetes, asthma and tuberculosis. “Since Coronavirus is a pulmonary disease, her history of asthma and tuberculosis makes her very vulnerable to Covid-19,” the statement said. Similarly, they said, Sen suffered from high blood pressure, severe arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, and glaucoma. “As courier services have not been working, her family has been unable to send her the regular medication she is on, causing her further distress and possible medical complications,” it added.

The statement also cited National Commission of Women’s recommendation that women’s prisons be decongested and news reports that a Byculla jail doctor had also tested positive for the coronavirus. “Neither of the women is a flight risk, as they have both continuously complied with all the restrictions imposed upon them,” the signatories said. “Ever since their arrest and subsequent incarceration, there has never been a complaint from the administration of the prison against them. It shall be a travesty of justice to push them into ill health, and endanger their lives.”

The memorandum, which is also addressed to Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Mr Sanjay Chahande and Maharashtra Director General of Prisons SN Pandey, urged the authorities to protect the health and lives of undertrials. They added that prisons across the world are relaxing restrictions as the coronavirus cases continue to surge and requested them also to “uphold this humane example”.

Despite the court order, Bharadwaj has not been allowed to make a single phone call in the last two months, while Sen was allowed to talk to her daughter for two minutes only in the same period, the memorandum said.

“In these times of crisis, it is doubly important that the court provides due justice to these women,” the signatories said. “All cases must be examined adhering to the principle of equality before the law and equal protection before the law.”