Protection of prisoners, jail staff from COVID-19 sought

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ISLAMABAD, (TLTP): Civil society organizations, academia and human rights commission of Pakistan have signed a petition calling for immediate attention of federal and provincial governments to protect as many as 77,275 inmates and staff of Pakistani prisons from effects of fatal outbreak of Covid-19.

While issuing a statement on Monday, human rights organizations and human rights defenders, including Human Rights Commission of Pakistan HRCP, Human Rights Watch, Foundation for Fundamental Rights, Asma Jahangir (AGHS) Legal Aid Cell, Justice Project, Public Lawyers Front, Vice Chairman of the Pakistan Bar Council, faculty members of LUMS Law School and others termed prisoners as vulnerable and exposed to suffer irreparably in case of the Covid-19 outbreak in jails.

Seeking release of people behind the bars under minor crimes and those facing under-trial adjudications they said, “We 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. Similarly, 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.

They pointed out that the Federal and provincial governments must work through the Inspectorate General of Prisons to identify inmates who do not fall within the category of non-prohibitory clauses, should not have to file individual applications otherwise it will avert a catastrophic burdening of the court system.

It has been suggested that 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, adding 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.

“We, the undersigned human rights organizations and human rights defenders, request rapid action to ensure that inmates and staff of Pakistani prisons are provided adequate protection as cases of Covid-19 continue to increase across the country”, the urged.

Citing a recent order of the Chief Justice Athar Minallah of the Islamabad High Court, the human rights defenders made a point saying, “The confined space of a prison makes it virtually impossible to implement the policy of social distancing”.

There were of the view that 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.

It is worth mentioning here that 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 more than 77,275 people, more than half are still awaiting trial and are in jail for crimes for which they have not yet been convicted.

Earlier, taking decision in light of the gravity of Covid-19 risks posed to prisoners and the wider population, the Islamabad High Court has asked to release prisoners of minor crimes while issuing order, “Under-trial prisoners alleged to have committed offences falling within the ambit of the non-prohibitory clause are admitted to bail.”

The signed petition described, “It also noted that elderly prisoners and those who suffer pre-existing health conditions should also be considered for release.  In light of the extraordinary duty of care that the government owes to prison inmates and to the population at large to reduce the impact of Coronavirus and enable everyone to seek to implement measures for isolation and care within their own homes,”.

Calling upon the federal and provincial governments attention in the matter the petition urged that governments should 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.

They said that all prisoners, including under-trial and convicted, whose offences fall within the ambit of the non-prohibitory clauses should be released immediately, adding the 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.

They also demanded that detained asylum seekers and migrant children should be freed saying 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.

They civil society actors and others also said that 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. About female inmates they urged the governments that the women 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.

“Lastly, we would urge that the Federal and all the Provincial governments make their plans to reduce the risk of Coronavirus within their facilities public. There also needs to be a comprehensive plan in place to protect the staff, prisoners and visitors to detention facilities”, they concluded.

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