An alarming number of prisoners who are languishing in jails across the four provinces have not been convicted and are thus contributing to overcrowding in prisons, says a report submitted on Saturday by a commission constituted by the Islamabad High Court (IHC).
On November 22, 2019, the IHC had constituted a commission to ensure civil liberties of prisoners. The court had converted the complaint of a convict, Khadim Hussain, into a petition that highlighted the negligence of the executive authorities which had caused damage to the complainant’s eyesight.
During today's proceedings, Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari appeared before the court and presented a report of the commission regarding jail reforms and the situation of prisoners.
According to the report, seen by Dawn.com, under-trial prisoners constitute more than half of the prison population in all four provinces. An alarming 71 per cent of all prisoners in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are unconvicted. The proportion is 70pc in Sindh, 55pc in Punjab and 59pc in Balochistan.
"Even though these prisoners have not yet been convicted of any offences they are languishing in prisons and contributing to overcrowding," says the report.
The report also sheds light on serious physical and mental ailments that the country's prison population is suffering from. According to data provided by prison authorities in all four provinces which has been cited in the report, a total of 1,823 inmates are suffering from hepatitis, 425 have HIV, 173 tuberculosis, 594 mental illnesses and 2,192 are suffering from other ailments.
According to the document, almost half of the sanctioned posts of medical staff remain vacant in prisons across the country.
"To worsen the situation, not every prison is equipped with medical and dental equipment and very few prisons have functioning labs and paramedical staff," the report says, noting that prison authorities often fail to provide ambulances to transfer prisoners to hospitals in emergencies.
It regrets that inmates continue to suffer violations of their rights inside prisons because they are "not adequately informed" of their rights at the time of sentencing.
Authority to make arrests being used 'limitlessly'
Also during Saturday's hearing, IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah questioned how much coverage the media gives to an average prisoner in comparison to "special prisoners".
While hearing the case regarding jail reforms and ailing prisoners, the IHC had previously observed that executive authorities were vested with the power and jurisdiction under the prison rules and the code of criminal procedure to address grievances of the prisoners suffering from serious illnesses.
When Human Rights Minister Mazari appeared before the IHC today to present the commission's report, Justice Minallah said that the court had not asked her to appear before it. Mazari, however, said that she had come herself as she wanted to present the commission's report.
The IHC chief justice remarked that the authority to make arrests is being used "limitlessly".
"The Supreme Court has also said that you cannot misuse the authority to make arrests," said Justice Minallah.
Mazari told the court that they had also presented a plan to make separate cells for transgender persons. She said the government had formed a jail reforms committee consisting of Federal Law Minister Farogh Naseem and Barrister Ali Zafar, and that the report presented in court would also be shared with the government committee.
During the proceedings, Justice Minallah said that it was the government's responsibility to release a prisoner if he/she is severely ill.
"The whole philosophy of Islam is that a human should be treated like a human," remarked the chief justice, adding that Islam instructs that even if 100 guilty individuals are let go, one innocent individual should not be punished.
"Throwing a convict in jail has a purpose," he said, adding that people are not sent to jail to be tortured.
A medical officer informed the IHC that 249 prisoners requiring immediate treatment in hospitals have come forward.
'Why are missing persons missing?'
Mazari also raised the issue of missing persons during the proceedings. She noted that some individuals have been missing for five to six years which causes severe anguish to their families.
"The recovery of missing persons is the government's responsibility. The state cannot provide any reasoning for the recovery of missing persons," Justice Minallah said, adding: "The state should provide reasons as to why missing persons are missing."
Mazari stated that the report presented in court also includes details of women and children abused in jails.
"We are hopeful that our political leadership will work on this issue," replied Justice Minallah.
The court adjourned the proceedings until February 15 seeking details of international laws for prisoners.
Speaking to media outside the court, Mazari said that they had submitted the report regarding prisoners in jails to the IHC and had presented their recommendations before the IHC chief justice.
The human rights minister said that inmates should be granted the right to work in prisons so that they can start their new lives upon release. She regretted that transgender and ill persons have no facilities in prisons.