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March 24, 2020

Call to protect prisoners

Lahore

March 24, 2020

Human rights organisations have demanded rapid action to ensure that inmates and staff of Pakistani prisons are provided with adequate protection as cases of Covid-19 continued to increase across the country.

They have demanded that all prisoners, including under-trial and convicted, whose offences fall within the ambit of the non-prohibitory clauses should be released immediately. As noted in a recent order issued by Chief Justice Athar Minallah of the Islamabad High Court, “the confined space of a prison makes it virtually impossible to implement the policy of social distancing. The prisoners are vulnerable and exposed to suffer irreparably in case of an outbreak. Prisons, which are overcrowded, have high turnover and intolerable living conditions, could potentially become epicenters for outbreak of the deadly virus.” The unhygienic and overall poor condition of prisons in this country has been extensively documented. A commission report earlier this year showed that contagious and chronic infections such as HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis are already rampant within the prison populations. Additionally, prisons across the country are filled well beyond their capacity and of the current inmate population of approximately 77,275 people, more than half are still awaiting trial and are in jail for crimes for which they have not yet been convicted.

In light of the gravity of risks posed to prisoners and the wider population, the Islamabad High Court ordered, “under-trial prisoners alleged to have committed offences falling within the ambit of the non-prohibitory clause are admitted to bail.” It also noted that elderly prisoners and those who suffer pre-existing health conditions should also be considered for release.

The government has a duty of care to prisoners and to the population at large. To enable everyone to implement measures for isolation and care within their own homes, the human rights activists demanded the government urgently release persons who should not be in custody in any case, including those detained for peaceful exercise of their fundamental rights to speech, assembly or any other right granted under the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973 and International human rights instruments. All prisoners, including under-trial and convicted, whose offences fall within the ambit of the non-prohibitory clauses should be released immediately. Pre-trial and under-trial detainees who pose no imminent threat to public security and this particularly includes those whose trials are delayed on account of the coronavirus outbreak, should be released. Detained asylum seekers and migrant children should be freed.

In cases where the provincial governments are empowered under the Pakistan Prison Rules, 1978 and Section 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to suspend sentences, those who have served a significant portion of their sentences and are not considered to pose a threat to public safety should be considered for release. Those in prisons with underlying health conditions or those above the age of 55, who are not considered to pose a threat to public safety, should also be released, since they are particularly vulnerable to the virus. Female inmates who do not fall within the categories above but who have minor children requiring care during this public health emergency, should be accorded suspensions or commutations where there is no reason to believe that their release will imperil public safety. The federal and provincial governments must work through the Inspectorate General of Prisons to identify inmates who fall within the above-mentioned categories so that detainees should not have to file individual applications. This will avert a catastrophic burdening of the court system. Prior to release, all persons should be given a health screening and provided the means to return to their homes and abide further health and public safety advisories. The government must demonstrate cognizance of the fact that these are extraordinary circumstances and that people must have the means to survive without employment for some period of time.

Lastly, the rights organisations have demanded the federal and all provincial governments plan to reduce the risk of coronavirus within their public facilities.

Those who have called for these measures are 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, Shehri Pakistan, Members of Permanent Faculty, Shaikh Ahmad School of Law, LUMS and Abid Saqi, Vice-Chairman Pakistan Bar Council.