Healthcare for prisoners

November 14, 2019

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THE prime minister had acted wisely when he gave permission for Mian Nawaz Sharif’s treatment abroad. Whatever has been done to wriggle out of that decision — the ungainly wrangling over exclusion of Nawaz Sharif’s name from the ECL and the demand for unfair and unrealistic bonds — is unbecoming of a responsible government.

Read: Govt announces 'one-time' permission for Nawaz to travel abroad; PML-N rejects decision

Regardless of the final decision, it seems the government needs to appreciate the issues involved.

While the frivolous controversy over the removal of the former prime minister’s name from the ECL had been raging for several days, a UN panel held the Egyptian regime responsible for former president Mohamed Morsi’s death in prison, citing the horrible conditions of his detention and the lack of attention to his serious illness. Islamabad had good reason to avoid sharing Cairo’s embarrassment.

Secondly, the government should have been aware of the fact that a politician who passes away in prison becomes a greater leader and wins from his grave at least one election for his party. The lesson for the PTI leadership was obvious.

Pakistani authorities have no use for the rules bearing the name of Nelson Mandela.

It is not clear whether the government was reminded of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners that were applicable to the case. The rules, adopted in 1957 and revised the last time in 2015, are now called the Mandela Rules, in acknowledgement of the great international leader’s struggle against racial tyranny and his unjustifiable imprisonment for 27 long years. Rules 24 to 35 define the obligation of prison authorities regarding the medical care of all prisoners, including their transfer to clinics and hospitals for treatment by specialists.

Rule 24 says: “The provision of healthcare for prisoners is a state responsibility. Prisoners should enjoy the same standards of healthcare that are available in the community, and should have access to necessary healthcare services free of charge without discrimination on the grounds of their legal status.” The rich in the community go abroad for medical treatment at their own expense and a rich prisoner can do the same.

The same is the case with medical facilities that are being provided to other high-profile prisoners, especially NAB victims.

The question that informed citizens are asking is whether the facilities offered to prisoners belonging to the elite class can be extended to ordinary and poor detainees. This was the question posed by the Islamabad High Court chief justice while allowing Mian Nawaz Sharif’s release on bail, and he specifically asked for reports about the sick prisoners in the country’s jails. The matter must not be put in cold storage.

To be fair to past governments, they had taken note of the Standard Minimum Rules of 1957 while revising the prison rules and these include a number of provisions about prisoners’ medical entitlements. For instance, Rule 18 provides for a prisoner’s mandatory medical examination immediately after admission into prison, and Rules 19 and 20 require recording of a prisoner’s unexplained injuries and intimation to the sessions judge.

Rule 146 provides for release of prisoners on the ground of old age, infirmity or illness, and Chapter 32 (rules 726 to 809) is devoted to jailers’ duties to look after the sick prisoners, including the transfer of seriously ill prisoners to hospitals, and special care of mentally challenged detainees.

Are these rules observed in letter and spirit? They are not totally ignored but compliance is superficial. No jail superintendent today has the inclination or the courage to move for the release of a prisoner on the ground of infirmity or illness.

The Balochistan inspector-general of police disclosed at a consultation on torture the other day that nearly 60 condemned prisoners in Balochistan alone have been waiting for years for a decision on their mercy petitions. They have served a term equal to life imprisonment, many of them are seriously ill and some have become psychological wrecks. Quite a few of them deserve to be released forthwith. If compassion has no place in the presidency, the staff at prisons is unlikely to adopt a humane attitude.

The Mandela Rules do not appeal to authorities in Pakistan because they do not subscribe to the principles on which these rules are premised. These principles say all prisoners retain their inherent dignity as human beings, they remain members of the human family.

Rule 1 says: “All prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings. No prisoner shall be subjected to, and all prisoners shall be protected from, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, for which no circumstances whatsoever may be invoked as a justification. The safety and security of prisoners, staff, service providers and visitors shall be ensured at all times.”

These ideas are alien to the Pakistani mindset as it has evolved over the past few decades under cruel and callous rulers. The country is in the grip of a wave of pseudo-righteousness which inspires political gladiators to replace decent arguments with dirty expletives. Mian Nawaz Sharif loses the prefix to his name when he is sent to jail and the official media deprives Maulana Fazlur Rehman of his prefix the moment he starts his sit-in.

Further, Rule 5 also poses problems. It says: “The prison regime should seek to minimise any differences between prison life and life at liberty that tend to lessen the responsibility of the prisoners or the respect due to their dignity as human beings.” Our ministers might ask what is the fun in jailing people if no difference is allowed between prison conditions and life at liberty. They surely are in the wrong.

Pakistani authorities have no use for the rules bearing the name of Nelson Mandela, nor for the latter’s creed of preferring reconciliation to revenge.

The roots of the ill-treatment of prisoners in Pakistan lie, like the roots of custodial violence, in the arrogance of the elite and its culture of denying the equality and dignity of all human beings.

Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2019