By Salman Tahir
“They are criminals and they deserve no better”. This is how people talk about the rotting state of prisoners. It is easier to pass judgments from outside a cell to those inside, but the outsiders forget that those inside the prison are humans too and deserve to be treated with dignity. Article 7 of ICCPR which Pakistan has rectified and Article 14 of the constitution declares the dignity of man as the only unqualified right. Articles also prohibit the use of torture or inhumane treatment. However, despite the promises made by the state to the people, the reality for those rotting in prison cells is quite different.
There are 6 Cs which every modernised prison system should follow: custody, care, control, correction, cure and community. Here are some statistics to indicate how Pakistan is faring in them. The total official capacity of prisons in Pakistan as of 2015 was 46,705, however, we had 84,315 prisoners till 2016 making occupancy level 171 per cent. This is not only depriving prisoners of a humane life in the cells but is also causing radicalisation amongst the inmates as per a study by Legal Aid Office. Furthermore, according to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 65 prisoners died in prisons in 2015. 46 died from diseases while 4 had died because of torture by prison staff and one due to a beating by fellow inmates. Moreover, under-trial (still innocent) people are kept in same cells as the most horrific convicts. Approximately 69 per cent of the prison population comprises under-trial prisoners. Both have no access to proper medical supply, clothes, bedding, food, water, etc. and sadly, nobody cares because they are in jails to suffer.
This has resulted in another problem. Although Pakistan has signed the Convention against Torture (CAT), it has not yet implemented it. This means that no justice will be given for torture under CAT which adds to the obligations under Article 14 of ICCPR.
No matter the general perception, the underlining fact is that the prisoners are only humans and deserve to be treated properly. It takes a long time to decide a case in domestic courts of Pakistan. The reluctance of the court to take up a case for the dignity of a prisoner, the lack of interest shown by the legislature to make adequate laws and lack of importance by the government to takes adequate steps to ensure the respect of this right has resulted in the psychological death of the prisoners. They are left to rot with no regards what so ever to the fact that one day many of them will be released and they will have to mingle back in the society.
Here is a case for the prisoners. A viable solution for both the state and aggrieved party is for the state to sign the Optional Protocol. Signing is important in 2 main aspects. For the victims, it provides an avenue as a last resort to exert some kind of pressure on the state to comply by the provisions of ICCPR while for the state it provides a mechanism to have a quasi-judicial/non-binding forum which can adjudicate the matters in form of a human rights committee.
For the prisoners the right is exercisable only when all domestic remedies have been exhausted, the optional protocol provides a last-ditch mechanism for the provision of basic rights guaranteed. In this regard, they do not have to go to bullying and lobbying the international community by creating pressure to coerce the state into fulfilling its international obligations. This works in the favour of the state as well. Since human rights disputes can be settled by committee, the attention of the international community is less focused towards the political and more towards the legal aspect of the issue and justice could then be delivered without going to the streets in a much more coherent and civilised manner, one, that is very less likely to go out of hand. This, in extreme circumstances, could prevent a catastrophic outbreak of law as happened in Syria when an arrest of a boy and no recourse resulted in massive protests and civil war subsequently as it caused outrage among the public.
Conditions in prisons are shocking at the moment and signing the optional protocol will not only result in the better provision of human rights to the inmates but also a better social structure due to increased avenues of de-radicalisation and inclusion. Thus, a case can be made that Pakistan should have optional protocol back then but all is not lost now and steps can be taken for its ratification to ensure a safe state and a safe environment for the prisoners.