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Coronavirus Outbreak: Should prisoners be released on humanitarian grounds?

The Supreme Court of Pakistan is deliberating over the question, whether, under trial elderly prisoners be released from jails or not as Coronavirus pandemic appears to be increasing. The case involves complex legal, administrative and moral issues. What does the government say?

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Federal Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari submitted a report in the Supreme Court (SC) pertaining to the release of prisoners, as the coronavirus nationwide tally crossed 3,100 on Sunday. The minister intends to urge the court to take immediate action on humanitarian grounds so that no elderly gets infected in the prison. However, the court is likely to pass an order pertaining to the matter of all prisoners in Pakistani jails.

The report stated that the risk of the virus spreading across prisons was very high due to overcrowding. Infections among incarcerated persons could be problematic due to the lack of medical equipment and training capacity of prison staff.

It is important to note that the federal health ministry has told the apex court that coronavirus infections in Pakistan may rise to 50,000 by April 25 – a projection based on the pandemic’s trends in other countries.

The Ministry of National Health Services Regulations and Coordination has submitted a report to the Supreme Court five-judge larger bench, which is hearing a petition filed against March 20 order of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) to release under trial prisoners (UTPs).

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According to the report, the tally of coronavirus infections may top 50,000 by April 25. Some 2,392 of these infections might be in critical condition; 7,024 in severe condition and 41,482 facing mild infection.

There were over 1,500 senior citizens in prison across the country, the report further stated, recommending the immediate release of elderly prisoners, differently-abled and those with underlying health concerns.

“As our prisons are not highly equipped to provide care/intervention, it is strongly recommended that elderly, differently-abled and the persons who are underlying health issues be immediately released to comply with the Basic Principle for Treatment of Prisoners (adopted by United Nations General Assembly resolution) which emphasised the principle 9 that prisoners shall have access to health service available in the country without discrimination on the ground of their legal situation,” the report observed.

Read more: Coronavirus cases in Pakistan rise to 1408, Punjab tops the list

Mazari also requested the apex court to allow provincial governments to remit sentences where possible and permitted, under Section 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

Importantly, Pakistan’s Supreme Court last Monday halted the release of hundreds of prisoners who were supposed to be set free in an attempt to stem the spread of coronavirus in the country’s overcrowded jails.

Several high courts, including the Islamabad High Court, last week, had ordered the release of over 500 under-trial prisoners and those already sentenced for their involvement in petty crimes, to reduce the burden on the jails. “Coronavirus is a serious issue but the decisions taken in haste and fear won’t work,” Chief Justice of Supreme Court Gulzar Ahmed remarked.

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The SC believes that it has to determine as to who can formulate policy regarding the release of prisoners under extraordinary circumstances. The government had earlier displayed annoyance over the order passed by the IHC. Now the SC is likely to ask for the government’s opinion over the matter along with the health experts before giving any order.