More than 50 foreign MPs, professors and Nobel laureates and 10 civil society organisations on Thursday urged the Indian government to immediately release the activists arrested in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case, in view of the raging Covid-19 crisis.

In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, the signatories expressed concern about the deteriorating health of the prisoners due to neglect and unhygienic conditions in jails.

The signatories of the letter included Jose Antonio Guevara-Bermudez, former president of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Nobel-winning writers Olga Tokarczuk and Wole Soyinka and European Parliament members Margrete Auken and Idoia Villanueva.

The signatories said some of the undertrials had already tested positive for the coronavirus disease, while the others were at risk of contracting a virulent strain of the virus spreading in India.

“They [the prisoners] will have no access to prompt medical care that is necessary to save lives,” the signatories said. “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.”

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The signatories said that majority of the activists arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case were particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 because of their age and comorbid conditions.

“At least six of the arrested have contracted Covid-19, others have reported various acute infections and a rapid deterioration of health,” the signatories said. “Two of the BK [Bhima Koregaon]-16 [Delhi University professor Hany Babu and tribal rights activist Stan Swamy] were recently shifted to multi-specialty hospitals after intense advocacy from family members and concerned citizens.”

The MPs and academics also cited the example of 80-year old poet Varavara Rao, who received temporary bail on medical grounds after weeks of hospitalisation.

The signatories flagged how ill-equipped prisons were to handle a possible third wave of Covid-19. “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,” they said.

The signatories said that families of the prisoners should be allowed to care for them when the jails cannot guarantee their safety. “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,” they added.

The MPs and academics demanded that the authorities immediately release the Bhima Koregaon prisoners from overcrowded and unsafe prisons. “Allow them to be cared for by their kin,” they said. “Show compassion and responsibility in order to avoid catastrophic consequences. Ensure them their constitutional right to live and die in dignity.”

Swamy and Babu had tested positive for Covid-19 in May. Three other accused in the Bhima Koregaon case – Mahesh Raut, Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor – had also contracted the infection.

Several activists and academics have been arrested for allegedly making inflammatory speeches at the Elgar Parishad conclave held at Shaniwar Wada in Pune on December 31, 2017, which the authorities claim triggered violence at Bhima-Koregaon war memorial the next day.

Only Telugu poet and activist Rao, one of the accused in the case, was granted bail on medical grounds for six months in February by the Bombay High Court.