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Pakistan's top court cancels order to free prisoners

Supreme Court decision sparks fears that prisoners face increased Covid-19 risks in overcrowded jails
Pakistan's top court cancels order to free prisoners

Father Nazir John of Ambassadors of Christ of Karachi Archdiocese is seen here with his team visiting a school for young offenders in Karachi. He is concerned that prisoners face the risk of contracting the coronavirus. (Photo supplied)

Published: April 08, 2020 08:33 AM GMT
Updated: April 08, 2020 08:33 AM GMT

Pakistan’s top court has overturned the decisions of Islamabad and Sindh high courts to free 519 under-trial prisoners in a bid to stem the transmission of coronavirus in overcrowded jails.

A five-judge bench of the Supreme Court ordered the rearrest of prisoners who were set free by the two high courts last month.

The apex court questioned the courts exercising suo muto powers to grant relief to prisoners by saying that such powers only belonged to the Supreme Court.

"An overcrowded prison, though an inconvenient abode, nonetheless, without a contaminated inmate is a safe place,” the written judgment said. “Barring a few countries with low crime rates, most prisons in the world are overcrowded.”

The decision came despite dozens of prisoners testing positive for coronavirus in Pakistan. According to Punjab’s Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, 49 prisoners have contracted coronavirus in Lahore’s Camp Jail.

The Justice Project Pakistan, a non-profit organization representing vulnerable Pakistani prisoners, has warned that the number of infections might exceed 100 by April 14 if urgent measures are not taken.

According to its data, Pakistan has 77,275 prisoners in 14 jails with a capacity of only 57,742.

Saleem Michael, legal adviser to the Archdiocese of Karachi, said the Supreme Court should have considered the matter on humanitarian grounds.

“First of all, we respect the authority and power of the judiciary, but since our jails are overcrowded, there was a need to consider the plight of prisoners on a humanitarian basis during the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.

Father Nazir John, the pioneer of Ambassadors of Christ of the Archdiocese of Karachi, said he is in contact with the inspector general of Sindh prisons.

“We appreciate that the Sindh government recognizes the risks prisoners might face due to the disease. We will work with them to secure freedom for prisoners who have no access to legal aid,” he said.

“Some prisoners might be involved in serious crimes, but they are human beings after all. We will carry on our work being a Christian ministry of the Catholic Church regardless of faith or sect.”

Meanwhile, Pakistan Psychiatric Society urged the government to ensure the safety of mentally ill prisoners during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Mentally ill patients often have underlying diseases that make them more susceptible to the virus. Prisoners with mental illnesses cannot always understand and follow instructions clearly. They may not be able to maintain personal hygiene by washing their hands properly or taking precautionary measures,” president Muhammad Iqbal Afridi and general secretary Mian Mukhtar ul Haq Azeemi said in a statement on April 5.

“Moreover, they might not be able to identify symptoms or express themselves to seek medical attention.”

According to official figures, Pakistan has at least 600 mentally ill prisoners. These prisoners are at great risk of contracting Covid-19 due to their compromised immune systems, the society said. 

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