‘Chennai Six’ case takes centre stage in Mallya hearing

Vidya Ram London | Updated on January 09, 2018

Vijay Mallya

Defence questions conditions in Indian prisons, credibility of assurances given by India

Snakes, rats, one meagre meal a day, and denial of medical treatment to a person diagnosed with cancer.

These were some of the conditions in which the so-called Chennai Six — a group of British men intercepted by the Indian coast guard in 2013 along with 29 other crew members and recently released — were kept in Puzhal Central Prison in Chennai, according to a defence witness in the Vijay Mallya extradition hearing, who recounted a conversation he had had with one of the men.

The defence sought to use this and other testimony to question not only conditions in Indian prisons but the reliability of high-level assurances in guaranteeing the conditions in which prisoners were kept in, as well as the ability to rectify breaches of orders on improving conditions.

They also highlighted Mallya’s own medical problems, which they suggested would unlikely to be adequately catered for, even under the assurances offered by India.

Alan Mitchell, a Scottish prison expert, and elected member of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, who is also a medical practitioner recounted details of a conversation he had had on December 11 with an unnamed member of the six (at the behest of the defence), who portrayed the harrowing conditions in which they were kept in Puzhal.

Defence barrister Clare Montgomery contrasted this with the reassurances offered in the British Parliament by senior members of the government who had insisted that consular access was ensuring improved conditions. In a twist to the case that caught the prosecution off-guard, Mitchell recounted how the unnamed man described being grabbed and taken to a psychiatric hospital by prisoners and staff for “excessively walking around the prison,” and while at the hospital staff attempted to force feed him anti-psychotic staff.

The former prisoner also told Mitchell how another prisoner had, following a long application process, been granted permission to attend a private hospital where he had been diagnosed with cancer, but had subsequently not been given treatment when he returned to jail.

“Did the intervention of consular staff have any impact,” asked Montgomery of the prisoners’ general attempts to improve conditions. “No,” insisted Mitchell, who provided further details of the man’s account, which included the presence of rats, cockroaches, and the lack of a mattress for months in the 50-square metre room in which the 23 foreign nationals were being held, and the failure of a prisoner to have access to a dentist despite an abscess. “Despite assurances being given in Parliament he was disappointed by the effect the involvement of the high commission and the UK government had on the conditions in which he and his fellow prisoners were held,” said Mitchell.

The case of the Chennai Six was part of a wider body of testimony presented by Mitchell, via which the defence sought to undermine the credibility of assurances given by India around the conditions Mallya would be held in Arthur Road Jail in Mumbai, should he be successful extradited. This included Mitchell’s assessment of the lack of a “regular open process of inspection,” without which, he argued, assurances amounted to very little, pointing to one case he had testified in where a prison inspector had insisted there had been no complaints from a single prisoner in 12 years.

He also highlighted his own inspection of “the filthy conditions” in Alipore Jail in the past, which included a lack of adequate healthcare including mental healthcare provision (which only covered the use of drug therapy), and the sight of prisoners “rocking back and forth on the floor”.

“Until the time I went, I have not encountered prison conditions as “deplorable” as I saw in Alipore,” Mitchell told the court. He also questioned the adequacy of the medical staff available to prisoners at Barrack 12 of Arthur Road jail, particularly given Vijay Mallya’s medical conditions, which included diabetes, coronary artery disease and sleep apnea.

While the government’s assurances mentioned four doctors – one of whom would be available 24 hours a day – he noted that for a similar number of inmates (3,000) a British prison would have 12 doctors and 60 nurses.

He also criticised the assurances given by the government, including photographs, for being “very general in nature”. “They make reference to adequate…what is adequate,” he said.

The defence also sought to focus on the authorities response to a Bombay High Court directive on reform of prison conditions in the State, and the lack of response which had taken place to date, with prison officials able to change very little without being given additional resources.

The prosecution sought to challenge the reliability of Mitchell’s testimony, suggesting at one point Mitchell might be being used by the anonymous former prisoner as a “platform to launch a compensation claim” against the British government.

“What you have to offer is the uncorroborated content of a conversation you had with somebody two days ago – of his experiences in a prison in Chennai – having been arrested in India for criminal offences and detained there for sometime – not extradited to India?,” he asked the witness.

He also sought to highlight how conditions varied across States, as well as the British Home Office’s own assessment which judged conditions in Indian courts not to be systematically life threatening.

The defence also highlighted the controversy between India and Portugal over Abu Salem, the 1993 bombings accused, and assurances that had been given to a Portuguese court in the effort to extradite him that he wouldn’t be sentenced for a period of longer than 25 years. He has been sentenced to life.

Following the government challenge to the anonymous Chennai 6 man’s evidence, Montgomery said that his evidence to the court would be formalised within the next two days.

During an intense session cross-examination session, Mr. Mitchell declined to give the green light to a number of more specific assurances including regarding access to natural light and access to medical care that would be made available at Barrack 12, as well as around the bodies that be involved in monitoring the prison. He argued that there was a difference between an assurance that a body could monitor, versus actual monitoring. The only way to truly assess the quality of the assurances given by India would be for him to undertake a visit, Mr. Mitchell said. “Visits are important…because it allows an independent expert to see for themselves what the conditions of detention are but also engage with prison authorities and dialogue to get a fuller understanding of how the regime operates within that particular prison.”

During a discussion in which Russian prisons were compared to those in India, Mr. Mitchell said that with the exception of a prison for life sentence prisoners in Russia the material conditions, including access to healthcare, were “above those within the Indian prison system.”

The hearing will now continue into the New Year, resuming on January 10, when arguments about the admissibility of evidence from both side will be considered. The judge has also sought further clarification on prison conditions.

Published on December 14, 2017

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