Prominent separatist leader Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai, who was arrested under the Public Safety Act in July last year, died of COVID-19 at a hospital in Jammu on Wednesday, officials said.
The body of Sehrai, 77, was handed over to his family on Wednesday evening and taken in a police escort to Kupwara in north Kashmir, at least 350 km from Jammu, where he would be buried at his ancestral graveyard in accordance with the COVID-19 guidelines.
A close confidant of hardline Hurriyat Conference leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Sehrai was incarcerated at the district jail in Udhampur.
He was shifted to Jammu's Government Medical College (GMC) hospital after his health deteriorated on Tuesday, the officials said.
Sehrai, who replaced Geelani as chairperson of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat in 2018, had tested negative for COVID-19 in the rapid antigen test but later his RT-PCR report in the evening showed him positive after his death, they said, adding that he had COVID-19 symptoms and his oxygen levels had fallen.
They said Sehrai, who had been jailed in Udhampur since July 13, 2020, had been suffering from various ailments.
He complained of breathlessness on Tuesday and was taken to the district hospital in Udhampur.
When his situation did not improve, he was moved to the GMC, about 55 kilometres away, where he breathed his last around noon on Wednesday following acute respiratory distress, the officials said.
His youngest son Junaid Ashraf Khan had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen terror outfit in March 2018 and was later killed in an encounter with security forces in Srinagar on May 19, 2020.
Sehrai was one of those detained during a lockdown ahead of the revocation of special status to Jammu and Kashmir and its bifurcation into two union territories in August 2019.
He was finally arrested under the PSA from his Barzaulla residence in Srinagar in July last year.
Originally hailing from Tekipura village in Lolab in north Kashmir's Kupwara district, Sehrai joined the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) at a young age and remained associated with Geelani for over six decades.
He was detained numerous times on charges of carrying out anti-government and anti-national activities.
Sehrai was Geelani's main supporter and aide when he launched the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat in 2004 after parting ways with the Jamaat.
Sehrai was appointed as acting chairperson by Tehreek-e-Hurriyat in March 2018 and was later elected as chairperson for three years after Geelani stepped down from the post.
Political parties across the spectrum in Jammu and Kashmir mourned the death of the separatist leader with People's Conference president and former minister Sajad Lone saying, 'Sehrai Sahib was a political leader not a terrorist'.
In a series of tweets, Lone remembered his meeting with the leader and asked, 'And why did he have to die in incarceration and not at his home amongst his kin and loved ones. Have we become so weak that an old infirm dying person is a threat to the state. I am not being critical. But please introspect.'
People's Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti said numerous political leaders continue to be under detention in Jammu and Kashmir 'purely' for their ideology and said 'in today's India one pays a price with his life for dissent'.
'The least GOI can do in such dangerous circumstances is to immediately release these detainees on parole so that they return home to their families,' she wrote on twitter.
The Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee (JKPCC) expressed grief over the separatist leader's death in Jammu and said he was a well-known religious and scholarly figure of Kashmir.
Senior Communist Party of India-Marxist leader Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami said in view of the prevailing COVID-19 crisis, it would be appropriate if cases of prisoners are reviewed and those who are not involved in heinous crimes are released.
Hurriyat Conference-led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq condoled Sehrai's demise and alleged 'inhumane attitude' of the authorities.
The separatist amalgam claimed that despite repeated appeals to release political prisoners lodged in various jails on humanitarian grounds in view of COVID crises, 'authorities are playing with their lives'.
'Hurriyat Conference once again asks the government authorities to release all political prisoners lodged in jails across J-K and outside in view of the COVID catastrophe on health and humanitarian grounds and save their lives,' it added.