Noor Ejaz

“over 77,275 prisoners were held in 114 jails across the country. These 114 jails cumulatively have the capacity to house only 57,742 people”

In the wake of the COVID -19 virus, although there has been a notification of releasing under trial prisoners ( apart from those being held under Anti-Terrorism Act) by all provinces, prisoners may not be released as bail applications have to be first filed and then heard for them to be released. This process may take weeks and meanwhile, thousands of prisoners face the threat of being infected with COVID-19. Health officials fear that if this happens, the virus will spread like wildfire in the overcrowded prisons across the country.

It is no secret that jails in the country are overcrowded, under-maintained, and lack basic health and hygiene facilities. In a report submitted to the Supreme Court of Pakistan by the Federal Ombudsperson in 2019, over 77,275 prisoners were held in 114 jails across the country. These 114 jails cumulatively have the capacity to house only 57,742 people. A majority of these prisoners are held across 42 jails in Punjab, which are overcrowded by 45% of their original capacity. Sindh is a close second with 24 prisons, overcrowded by 32%.

The state in its eagerness to maintain incarceration as an effective tool for authoritarianism, surveillance and deterrence, has evidently caused prisons to brim with citizens who continue to await trials. Currently, 62.1% of Pakistan’s jail inhabitants are undertrial prisoners. It is clear that the State has created a burden for itself that it can no longer contain.

“Sattar is an activist from Okara who was detained in April 2016 and has since languished in one jail or another pending his trial under the Anti-Terrorism Act.”

It inevitably follows that Pakistani prisons are severely under-equipped in resources to adequately take care of its prisoners, let alone control the outbreak of a contagious pandemic that is bound to spread. It is especially bound to spread in an environment where people are bound in a limited space with no facilities.

But let’s not ignore facts. Each province has in fact, issued respective notifications ordering the release of some prisoners. For example, the Lahore High Court issued a notification on 26.03.2020 ordering the hearing of bail applications of under-trial prisoners, convicts with imprisonment of less than seven years, undertrial juvenile accused persons, juvenile convicts, under-trial women and convicted women. This decision is welcome because it orders jail authorities to file bail applications for most classes of prisoners. Therefore, many convicts like Alamgir Wazir, who have been held in prison due to prolonged trials, can be released. Wazir, detained early in December, 2019 under a charge of sedition, is being held at Camp Jail in Lahore.

Yet, this decision was taken after a prisoner tested positive for the virus in Camp Jail in Lahore.

This is also the same jail which as per its own webpage has a capacity of 1050 prisoners, but houses over 3500 prisoners as per news reports. This is the same prison which as per a news report from July, 2019 has a single doctor on duty for these 3500 prisoners. In circumstances like these, it is only inevitable that the virus will spread across this prison rapidly and will endanger the lives of many.

We must ask now: are we too late?

The answer is yes. This callously delayed action is exacerbated by the caveat in the notification that prisoners’ bail applications must first be allowed. Keeping in mind a virus that is spreading within days, waiting for bails to be heard on a case-to-case basis for certain classes of prisoners is not the answer. The answer is to order their bails immediately, much like the Islamabad High Court’s recent decision to collectively release over 400 prisoners within its jurisdiction on bail.

But what class of prisoners do we continue to forsake?

The notification unequivocally does not apply to under-trial prisoners and convicts held under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997. It is no secret that the application of the Anti-Terrorism Act has often been arbitrary. Take the recent example of protestors from Awami Workers’ Party who were detained in February for organizing peacefully. Their bail was rejected by the Islamabad Sessions Court on the pretext that their protest attracted offences under the Anti-Terrorism Act. It is this very arbitrary usage that has in fact prompted the Supreme Court to discourage the wide application of the offence of terrorism in a recent judgment. But what about those who were the victims of these arbitrary accusations before the Supreme Court’s judgment?

Let’s take the case of Mahar Sattar.

Sattar is an activist from Okara who was detained in April 2016 and has since languished in one jail or another pending his trial under the Anti-Terrorism Act. Then there is Baba Jan, a political activist sentenced to life under the Anti-Terrorism Act who continues to suffer in a prison in Gilgit Baltistan. There are many others like Sattar and Jan, who are victims of injustice but are yet being punished for the State’s indiscretions. They are those who continue to perish in ill-equipped prisons offering no solace to their inhabitants in these times.

“Then there is Baba Jan, a political activist sentenced to life under the Anti-Terrorism Act who continues to suffer in a prison in Gilgit Baltistan.”

Let’s also not forget the shadow prisons that operate beyond official prison statistics and numbers. Their inhabitants include military court convicts, missing persons and detainees who remain invisible, uncounted and faceless. As of May 2018, 1330 people had been sent to various internment centers in the country. These numbers are people who are untouched by any promise of prison reforms or any assurances provided by provincial notifications. The locations of these centers remain unknown to the public. There is no accountability for the safety of these internees for no one actually knows where they are or whether they are alive. Therefore, what is the remedy we seek for people who are removed from the State’s official protections? The answer is that there is no remedy. One can only hope. We can only hope that wherever these individuals are detained, authorities overseeing their arrest are acting responsibly.

It ultimately seems that the spread of COVID-19 has opened up the doors to large-scale criticism of who we unconsciously have chosen to save and who we have left behind. However, it cannot be forgotten that the State has assumed a higher level of responsibility to protect the lives of its prisoners. These prisoners are at the State’s behest and just like we have chosen to save the free citizens of this country, we must not abandon those behind bars. The need of the hour is not selection; it is blanket protection.