Indian Muslim doctor spent 7 months in jail for raising his voice – finally free, harrowing tales of starvation and beatings
Dr Kafeel Khan, an Indian doctor jailed for more than seven months for speaking out against a controversial citizenship law, was released from jail on Tuesday night.
The order for his release came after Allahabad High Court called his incarceration “illegal” and ordered his immediate release.
Khan’s lawyer told PTI: “Mathura jail administration informed at around 11.00 pm that Dr Kafeel will be released, and at around midnight, he was released.
Dr Khan told Al Jazeera he was physically tortured while held in jail, which included him being stripped of his clothes and beaten and deprived of food for days.
“It was very hard for the whole family. My 65-year-old mother was forced to visit the courts during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.
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Dr Khan was arrested in January for a speech he gave a month earlier that authorities in Uttar Pradesh (UP) deemed incendiary. He was charged under the National Security Act (NSA), which says a person can be held without charge for a year.
His speech was about major issues facing the country – such as malnutrition, lack of health facilities and the unemployment crisis.
Dr Khan also criticised the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which bans Muslims from neighbouring South Asian countries from getting Indian nationality. Some believe it was his criticism of the CAA which angered the government.
The CAA passed in December and sparked nationwide protests led mostly by Muslim – India’s largest minority, at nearly 200 million people.
The passing of the law in December sparked nationwide protests led mostly by Muslims – India’s largest minority, numbering nearly 200 million.
Targeted for being Muslim
UP’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, known for his anti-Muslim statements, ordered a crackdown against anti-CAA protests in the northern state. More than two dozen Muslims were killed in police action that was condemned by Amnesty International India.
“Who will speak up in this time of atrocities, if we are also quiet, who will raise their voice?” Khan had said during the speech in front of students of Aligarh Muslim University.
Critics believe Dr Khan, 38, was targeted because he chose to speak up against the law, which the UN has dubbed “fundamentally discriminatory.”
The UP police department accused Dr Khan of “sowing seeds of discord towards other religious communities,” in its official complaint.
But the High Court on Tuesday disagreed, saying “a complete reading of the speech also nowhere threatens peace and tranquillity of the city of Aligarh.”
“The address gives a call for national integrity and unity among the citizens. The speech also deprecates any kind of violence,” the 42-page judgement read.
Dr Harjit Singh Bhatti, based in New Dehli, is one of Khan’s most vocal supporters. He said that Khan has been likely targetted because of his religion.
“Dr Khan is rising as a prominent Muslim face in India, which the government doesn’t want … they don’t want an educated Muslim person raising his voice, about their rights or equality,” Bhatti told Al Jazeera
No food for days in overcrowded prison
Dr Khan spent nearly 500 days in prison in the last three years, but he’s not the only one. There are still several activists behind the peaceful anti-CAA protests that are still locked up for opposing the government’s alleged anti-minority policies.
Rights groups have condemned their continued incarceration as the coronavirus pandemic poses a threat to their life in India’s overcrowded prison. On Monday, India became the second-worst country hit by Covid-19, taking over Brazil, with over 4.2 million cases.
Of his time in prison, Dr khan told Al Jazeera “they really wanted to break me this time.”
“For the first four to five days of my incarceration, I did not receive any food. I wore the same clothes… I was not able to take a bath or brush my teeth.”
“To go to the toilet there was a queue of 30 minutes,” he said, adding he had to share the barrack with some 150 people while it only had the capacity to hold 40.
He said he would bite on his sleeve to distract himself from the excruciating hunger he experienced. “I was in so much pain I could have eaten grass,” he said.
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