KARACHI: Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah has approved a summary to release thousands of convicts from prisons to prevent the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19), it emerged on Sunday.

Officials said that the summary was being sent to cabinet members to get their approval by circulation.

They said that the prisoners convicted of drugs and terrorism charges might not get the relief.

They said that the provincial government would suspend their sentences under relevant laws and release them for a period of three months after getting certain guarantees from them to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in province’s jails, where thousands of prisoners are languishing in overcrowded facilities.

Such a decision would be compatible with the provincial government’s concerted efforts to control the pandemic and a decision of the apex court that had recently granted relief to undertrial prisoners (UTPs), they added.

Over 16,000 in Sindh’s prisons

An official familiar with this development told Dawn that there were over 16,000 prisoners in Sindh. Of them, 4,000 were convicted of charges ranging from drugs to terrorism and over 12,000 were UTPs, he said.

The official said that prisoners had been placed in different categories for their release.

However, the official hinted that drug smugglers and those convicted of terrorism might not get the benefit of such a relief.

The relief will be for a three-month period and will not apply to those convicted of drug pushing and terrorism

The official said that a summary to this effect was being approved by the Sindh cabinet by circulation since in this time of virus spread a cabinet meeting was unlikely to take place.

For the release of over 12,000 UTPs, the provincial government, through the Sindh advocate general, was in touch with the judiciary.

According to official documents reviewed by Dawn on Sunday, Inspector General of Prisons Nusrat Mangan has recently sent a letter drawing the attention of the Sindh government for the potential risk of spread of Covid-19 among inmates and staff.

At present, the documents said, there were around 16,024 prisoners against the actual capacity of 13,538 in all prisons across the Sindh. It was apprehended that overcrowding posed an “imminent threat and may lead to the spread of the infection inside the prisons”.

The IG-Prisons urged the government to exercise powers conferred under Section 401 of the criminal procedure code read with Section 402, 402-A, 402-B, 402-C and 404-D in order to protect the lives of prisoners.

The said provisions of the law empowered the provincial and federal governments and the president of Pakistan to suspend or remit sentences with “conditions or without conditions”.

Subsequently, additional chief secretary-home Usman Chachar prepared a summary and sent it to the chief minister for approval.

Prisoners’ release subject to conditions

The home secretary in the summary also concurred with the views of the IG-Prisons stating that there was a “looming threat of coronovirus spread amongst inmates and staff in view of the overcrowding situation in the prisons”.

It said that the Sindh government had already taken substantive steps to control/limit the spread of the disease. “Therefore, similar additional steps will create a sense of inclusiveness and goodwill amongst the prisoners and will also ensure the preservation of precious lives,” it added.

The summary proposed that the provincial government might suspend the execution of sentences of convicts in prisons of Sindh under the relevant provisions of the laws for a period of three months due to Covid-19 situation.

The possible release of the convicted prisoners would be subjected to host of conditions. It has been stated that the prisoners would be released after execution of a surety bond. They would be asked to report to jail on completion of the suspended period of sentence and any other condition which the authorities concerned may deem fit for ensuring their return on completion of their suspended sentence.

“If any convict fails to return on expiry of prescribed term, he/she shall deemed to be an absconder and the concerned Superintendent of Prison shall initiate legal proceedings against him/her,” an official document said.

Sources said that top law officers of the province had also supported this move stating that it was a suspension on account of a pandemic, thus the provincial government could do it after complying with the relevant sections of the laws.

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2020