A number of actions taken on Thursday, March 26, showed that the judiciary and the executive were both taking the idea of releasing prisoners seriously in order to contain the Coronavirus from spreading within the walls of the jails.
At the Islamabad High Court, Chief Justice Athar Minallah ordered the release of 24 prisoners; the Lahore High Court issued guidelines to release more prisoners from all Punjab jails, and the Sindh Chief Minister gave solid directions to his Home Department to prepare the lists of those meant to be released – all in the same day.
Even a day before, on March 25, judges from the Peshawar High Court ordered the release of 18 prisoners facing minor offense.
The IHC ordered the release of 24 suspects who had been under trial for different charges of corruption, filed by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).
Issuing the release orders, CJ Athar Minallah said that UTPs kept under detention could mean that prison could become a hub for COVID-19. He said even as the prisoners awaited the test results they did not need to be under detention.
At the LHC, Chief Justice Qasim Khan passed an order directing the province’s jail superintendents to immediately file bail petitions in local courts on behalf of inmates who have been imprisoned for up to 10 years.
But Lawyer Usama Khawar, from the Public Lawyers’ Front (PLF), does not think much of it.
“I do not think this order is very useful,” he said. “It has been passed on as an administrative order and legally speaking is worthless. It has only directed expeditious disposal of the bails and trial courts have been directed to pass orders to accept or reject.” Advocate Khawar said that getting bail through individual cases was a cumbersome process while the present emergency situation demands that prisoners be released immediately. “We have been arguing for action by the executive under Sections 63, 401, etc. as well as the Prisons Rules.” However, the guidelines have been sent across Punjab to related authorities.
In Sindh, Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah held an important meeting of the Home Department and assigned the core team to work out details regarding the total number of prisoners in the province so that they could be given relief according to the severity of their crimes, their health, and their financial conditions.
According to CM Shah a list that he had, counted 16,000 prisoners across Sindh. (However, a report presented to the Supreme Court in November, said that Sindh has 17,239 inmates).
“Lists of the prisoners must be prepared and then divided further into different categories,” Shah had directed, adding that their under-trial and convicted prisoners must be in two different categories and so on.
The speedy action is being taken after it was revealed on Tuesday, March 24, that the first prisoner was reported to have been infected with Coronavirus. The prisoner was at Camp Jail, Lahore, and had been tested for after complaining of fever earlier.
He had been arrested a month ago for smuggling drugs from Italy and after his test had been sent back to the jail.
Even before this, public pressure was building up. On March 23, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR), Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), Asma Jahangir (AGHS ) Legal Aid Cell, Public Lawyers Front (PLF), Defence of Human Rights (DHR), Legal Aid Society, Free Legal Aid Society For The Helpless (FLASH), Members of Permanent Faculty, Shaikh Ahmad School of Law, LUMS (S. Aziz, S. Shah, M. Azeem, U. Kayani, A. Mirza, A. Sattar, F. Ismail, E. Ansari, Marva Khan) and Abid Saqi, Vice Chairman Pakistan Bar Council had all released a statement calling for the protection of all prisoners in the wake of COVID-19.
On March 24, a constitutional petition under Article 184 (3) was also filed in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, demanding that the orders be given to the Federal and Provincial Governments to take immediate action for effectively dealing with the Coronavirus Outbreak especially with regard to vulnerable communities including prisoners. This petition had been moved by human rights organizations, activists, lawyers, and President of the Awami Workers Party (AWP) Punjab.
Pakistan has an appallingly large number of inmates in its jails, but most are under-trial. Clearing the jails has been an exercise due for a long time.
ORDERS & DIRECTIVES
In each of the four provinces, similar orders were given to the Prison administrations.
In Sindh, the CM directed for the proper categorizing of all prisoners, dividing UTPs and convicts further into those prisoners facing heinous criminal charges separated from those facing minor charges. A separate list of elderly and sick prisoners is to be made as well so that their cases be considered accordingly.
Those prisoners will also be identified in a list, who had completed their punishments or jail term but did not have the money to pay the fine or penalty imposed on them; for those facing financial difficulties in paying their surety amount, but had already been granted bail, the Sindh government would step in to help.
Women, children, and foreigners will also be given special attention by the Home Department.
In Punjab, according to the directives by CJ LHC, the guidelines to release prisoners on bail have been sent to all the district and session judges. The IG Prisons Punjab, Shahid Saleem Baig has also received the guidelines, as well as all 41 Jail Superintendents across the province.
In Punjab, t is expected that around 600 juveniles and 700 women will be released.
The Chief Justice LHC issues guidelines on which prisoners should be released.
The court has asked the jail authorities to file their bail plea in the courts on behalf of all the prisoners in their jails who meet the above conditions, even if these prisoners have not previously been granted bail.
It has been specified however that no extraordinary waiver will apply to any of the defendants who have been charged with terrorism provisions.
Similarly, trial courts have also been given the option of hearing a plea of the accused and offenders who have been convicted of less than seven years.
The High Court too will guarantee bail for all the accused and criminals facing seven years imprisonment.
The letter that has been issued by the CJ LHC also contains some important instructions: as soon as the prisoner is released from the jails, the police chief of each district of the province will disallow the released prisoners to mingle with the ic for at least 14 days as they will be kept in quarantine.
The CM Punjab made a statement to this effect.
“The screening of prisoners has begun,” said Usman Buzdar. “A summary has been moved to release around 3,500 prisoners involved in petty crimes and a 100-bed hospital in Camp Jail Lahore has also been set up,” he assured.
Meanwhile,the DIG Prisons Kamran Anjum, claimed that at least 110 quarantine centers with attached washroom facilities have been established in the six prisons of Sahiwal and a screening of more than 32,000 people including prisoners, visitors and the staff has also been carried out.
KP & BALOCHISTAN
Meanwhile on Wednesday, March 25, administrative judges of the Peshawar High Court (PHC), Justice Roohul Amin Khan and Justice Ishtiaq Ibrahim inspected newly-established quarantine barracks at the Peshawar jail.
Newly admitted prisoners are now made to stay in these barracks temporarily under the standard operating procedures and protocols formulated by the KP government for the prevention and control of Covid-19.
The Judges visited all the other barracks also including those for juveniles.
They also ordered the release of 18 prisoners facing minor offense charges through the camp court and put more than 20 cases of UTPs on fast track for speedy disposal by the relevant courts.
The prisons of Balochistan will also be seeing similar action.
The Government of Balochistan has granted special permission to release 78 prisoners until now. The screening is still being carried out but till now no prisoner has been tested positive for the virus yet.