The concerns expressed by the SC regarding the issue of release of prisoners due to the corona outbreak are undoubtedly valid to some degree. Indeed, corruption and the fight against it has been the...
The concerns expressed by the SC regarding the issue of release of prisoners due to the corona outbreak are undoubtedly valid to some degree. Indeed, corruption and the fight against it has been the clarion call of our state for many months. However, we should also note that Pakistan’s badly overcrowded prisons hold at least 80,000 prisoners against a capacity of only 56,000. While the SC has ordered that doctors visit and assess conditions, the fact is that particularly in the case of a corona outbreak, how well will our healthcare system work for prisons? The SC has already said that there must be some administrative policy allowing an aged person or prisoners whose punishment had been almost completed to be released but the rules and law need to be looked at. It has been suggested by many activist organisations that prisoners held for minor offences and also those still facing trial be considered for release. And, while convicted prisoners have been jailed after being found guilty of committing some crime, they should not be sentenced to die as a result of a corona outbreak which would be uncontrollable in the current prison conditions.
Countries around the world are acting quickly. Iran, one of the declining number of countries which still freely exercises capital punishment, and has a high rate of imprisonment, has released 85,000 prisoners and pardoned another 10,000. Releases are also taking place in Britain, Bahrain, Italy, Germany and other countries. In the US too in some states hundreds of vulnerable prisoners are being released. This is a matter that needs to be examined with some care. But at the same time, we do not have much time. The virus spreads quickly. Pakistan’s prisons already include a large number of inmates suffering contagious diseases including HIV which weakens the immune system. There are at least 66 prisoners with disabilities in Punjab alone. Like the 1,500 prisoners over the age of 60 held in Punjab and Sindh, those with underlying illnesses are particularly susceptible to the virus while mentally ill prisoners held are also at greater risk given that many, such as a prisoner with schizophrenia held in Punjab, have already suffered self abuse or physical abuse inflicted by others.
Rights organisations have said that the government of Pakistan has an obligation under domestic and international law to protect the rights of prisoners during such health emergencies, including pandemics. The WHO has already declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. Over 2,200 cases of infection by the virus have been reported from all parts of Pakistan. The circumstances then are exceptional. The courts and the government must find ways to protect prisoners and safeguard them from the epidemic sweeping the world, especially given the poor healthcare they receive in jail and the sub-standard sanitary conditions which prevail at almost every prison.