- How those accused of minor crimes face death
After the Spanish ’flu’ of 1918, the world has once again is in the grip of a deadly pandemic, casting misery upon human beings regardless of caste or creed. Many have been pronounced dead by the authorities in sheer miserable conditions on account of contracting the symptoms of the deadly virus.
The deadly coronavirus has reached 198 countries of the world, but, Western Europe and the USA have been among those regions where Covid-19 has reached, or is reaching, its peak and left many dead and numerous affected. The world has been directed by the World Health Organization and other international health bodies to observe social distancing, self-isolation and to take precautionary measures to avoid contracting the coronavirus.
However, one group that needs to be considered amid the rapid spreading of Covid-19, are the people who ares languishing behind bars across Pakistan. According to the government jails reform commission report the total capacity of prisons in Pakistan is to accommodate 57,742 prisoners, while 73,661 prisoners are detained in them, and are presently exposed to contract Covid-19 behind bars. According to the government’s jail reforms report presented to the Islamabad High Court in January 2020, there are a total of 73,661 inmates in prisons across Pakistan that includes juveniles, women, senior citizens and those with weak health, and out of them 44,853 are under-trial prisoners (61 percent). In Punjab, there are 45,324 total prisoners and out of them 25,054 (55 percent) are under-trial. In Sindh, there are 16,315 total prisoners and 11,488 (70 percent) are under-trial. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the figures are total 9,900 and under-trials 7,067 (71 percent) and in Balochistan, total 2,122 and under-trials 1,244 (59 percent). In light of the international pattern, and in consideration of the national dynamics of Pakistan, the Islamabad High Court, and Sindh Government followed by the Lahore High Court, had decided on the release of prisoners convicted and under trial. The provincial government in exercise of its powers under section 401 of Criminal Code of Procedure 1898, the Punjab granted three months remission in sentence to prisoners detained in prisons across Punjab.
With the rise of Hinduism and the increasing saffron terrorism by Hindu militias against minorities that have begun sprouting in different parts of the country, while the government seems to turn a blind eye has many of people worried about the future of their so-called secular country
In the wake of the rapid spread of the coronavirus, the provincial governments and High Courts of two major provinces of Pakistan decided upon release of prisoners from prison in order to decrease the population of prisoners in prisons to lower the risk of spreading of coronavirus in prisons. In this writer’s opinion, the steps taken by the authorities appeared to be wise and humanely, as it was impossible to observe social distancing in prisons where tens of thousands have been detained in small barracks. It is also noted that prisons across Pakistan are notorious and overcrowded as noted in government jails reform commission report.
However, the Supreme Court constituted a Full Bench to hear a petition challenging the legality and calling for the suspension of decisions and orders taken by the High Courts’ on release of prisoners. The Full Bench of the Supreme Court suspended all decisions and orders of the High Courts on the release of prisoners, and maintained status quo till the final disposal of the appeal.
The countries across the globe, such as the USA, Canada, Iran, Ethiopia, India, China, the UAE and others, for fear of the rapid spread of the coronavirus in prisons, had released prisoners from their prisons on humanitarian grounds, the reason being that social distancing could not have been possible in small prison cells and inside prison barracks. “COVID-19 is now becoming a threat that takes our system’s inhumanity to a new and even more horrific level: we know that the virus spreads in confined groups with frightening speed and efficiency. In a prison environment, huge numbers will die. Essentially, we are transforming their sentence of incarceration into a sentence to death”, was observed by David Mills and Emily Galvin in The Independent. It is a time where due procedure of the criminal law ought not be followed at all. The writer says that in normal times, the judges listening to criminal cases and/or presiding upon bail matters would assume that to minimize risk to an individual, or their potential risk to the community, is to keep them in a cell.
It is a time to act effectively to save lives behind bars. However, the top officials of Pakistan have miserably failed in doing so. It is fair to suggest that the coronavirus is a death sentence for the incarcerated, even though they had been sent to the judicial lockup for minor offences. Juveniles and women prisoners under trial and convicted cannot be subjected to the death penalty as per domestic laws of Pakistan, but having them in prisons would lead them to death. The state of Pakistan shall take immediately necessary steps, and even the apex court of Pakistan must provide guidelines to the authorities and the courts in order to protect vulnerable lives. If we all do not act together, we might have a number of deaths amounting to 73,661.
Life is precious and the state of Pakistan must act to save all even prisoners. They deserved to be protected from contracting Covid-19, even in prisons. The condemned prisoner Muhammad Iqbal alias ‘Bali’ and others shall be set at liberty and those who have been arrested and charged despite of their juvenility for instance, Muhammad Rizwan, Umer alias ‘Billi’, Nabeel Masih etc. Covid-19 is a human rights issue, not just a health issue.