ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned the March 20 Islamabad High Court and March 26 Sindh High Court orders by recalling their directives to release undertrial prisoners (UTPs) in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Consequently, the prisoners released in pursuance of these directives are required to be taken into custody again, except those falling within the categories suggested by Attorney General Khalid Jawed Khan.

Authored by Justice Qazi Muhammad Amin Ahmed but announced by Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed, the SC judgement, however, made it clear that the observations made in the order would not cast shadow on pending or future cases.

The chief justice was heading a five-judge SC bench that had taken up a petition challenging the exercise of suo motu powers by the Islamabad High Court through its March 20 order granting bail to the UTPs in view of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Following the IHC directive, 292 prisoners were released, whereas the Sindh High Court allowed 519 inmates to go home in view of the overcrowding of jails against the backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak.

Apex court gets briefing today on disbursement of funds under Ehsaas programme

Earlier, the attorney general had proposed releasing on bail the accused charged with offences under non-prohibitory clauses or under vagrancy laws or offences carrying less than three-year sentence but with a condition that this benefit would not be extended to violent acts against children and women. Such benefit, according to the AG, should be extended first to persons suffering from ailments or physical or mental disability, or UTPs who were 55 years of age or older provided there was no history of past convictions, as well as women and juvenile UTPs.

Similarly, the attorney general had suggested releasing the convicted persons by the provincial governments under Section 401 of the Criminal Procedure Code who had otherwise completed their sentence but were still in jail on account of non-payment of fine/monetary penalty, women/juvenile convicts who had completed 75 per cent of their sentence and had no history of past convictions, or those whose remaining term in jail was six months or less provided offences were not violence against women and children.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court also issued certain directives vis-à-vis disbursement of funds among the needy under the government’s Ehsaas programme, but later withdrew the same at the request of the attorney general who pleaded that such directives be issued after a proper briefing by Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza and representatives of the National Disaster Management Authority.

The briefing will be held at the Supreme Court on Wednesday (today) at 12 noon. However, Justice Umar Ata Bandial stressed the need for disbursing the money among the deserving people and not among those who were merely on the list of the government since the number of such people had increased recently in view of lack of jobs.

Justice Bandial also asked the Centre to have better coordination with provincial governments which, he regretted, seemed not happening at the moment. The government itself had axed its feet by removing the local government system, he bemoaned, adding that the government was banking on the bureaucracy for disbursement of funds under the Ehsaas programme when the bureaucrats loved sitting in office rather than going to the field.

“There is a need to win the hearts of the people,” Justice Bandial emphasised, acknowledging that though the World Health Organisation (WHO) had appreciated Pakistan’s efforts on the basis of statistics, “we also have to take care about our economy to run Pakistan as we also have to work out the payment of loans”.

Justice Bandial stressed the need for motivating doctors by offering incentives like more salaries, facilities, etc.

The Supreme Court expressed dismay over the treatment meted out to the doctors and paramedics who were protesting against non-provision of personal protection equipment (PPE) in Quetta the other day.

Advocate General for Balochistan Arbab Mohammad Tahir explained that the protest was basically against non-confirmation of doctors on contract, adding that the provincial cabinet had already approved regularisation of such doctors.

But what alarmed the apex court was the purchase of imported PPE at a rate of Rs7,200 per piece from vendors in Karachi and Lahore when the actual price in the market was around Rs3,000 to Rs3,500. The PPEs along with facial masks, goggles and other equipments were purchased out of the Rs2 billion grant released by the Centre to Balochistan.

The chief justice observed that the doctors were doing commendable job and even treating the virus-affected people without any protected equipments for which they even put their lives at severe risk at a time of national calamity.

“There should not be any grievance among the doctors or paramedical staff about such provisions,” the order said, regretting that even “our hospitals lack proper hygiene conditions, which is also a cause of concern”. Outside the hospitals, it said, there should be proper disinfectants sprayed over the patients coming to the hospitals. Besides, the order added, hospital waste should also be disposed of properly.

The chief justice was also bitter over the appointment of doctors on a contractual or daily-wage basis, saying all government posts should be filled on a regular basis by following the required procedures. This was a dangerous trend going all over Pakistan to appoint people on contract through backdoor channels as a result they took their jobs casually, he observed.

Parliament must also be in session so that laws could be made to cater for the situations arising in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the chief justice emphasised, adding that in the emergency situation, the lawmaking process never stopped, rather it became all the more important.

In its order, the apex court stressed the need for making emergency regulations to deal with the pandemic and set up quarantine centres in all hospitals.

Referring to the border crossings at Taftan, Chaman and Torkham, the court directed the federal government to set up a full-fledged quarantine centre to accommodate at least 1,000 patients with single occupancy since the danger of pandemic surge still hangs on the people. “Unless these are plugged effectively by providing quarantine facilities, the spike of pandemic cannot be addressed,” the order said, adding that such facilities at these border crossings should have proper drainage system, clean water supply, clean and hygienic toilets, as well as emergency medical centres with appropriate medical supplies and equipments to cater for the sick people.

“At these centres proper food should also be made available,” the order said, adding that people at the quarantine centres should be dealt with in a humane manner. All such facilities should be made available expeditiously within one month, the order said with a directive for the authorities concerned to furnish a report in this regard. Non compliance, the order cautioned, would be considered defiance warranting proper action against the highest officials.

The court emphasised the need for manufacturing PPE locally as facilities and resources were available in the country. It asked the federal government to ensure the process of local manufacturing of ventilators to be used in hospitals.

The court order required the respective governments to ensure the law and order situation strictly to maintain tranquility and make every effort to reach out to the people to meet their needs at this hour.

Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2020