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No Mercy for Minorities in Jails

Unlike their Muslim counterparts, religious minorities in Pakistani jails struggle to secure remission in sentences through study of holy books

by Sumeera Riaz

File Photo. Asif Hassan—AFP

Despite lip-service for equal treatment from nearly all governments, past and present, minorities in Pakistan continue to struggle for their civil rights in all aspects of their lives. The problem is particularly heightened for jail inmates, who suffer the worst form of inequality in violation of clear provisions in the Constitution guaranteeing equal treatment for all.

A recent petition taken up by the Lahore High Court has underlined this issue, pleading that people’s right to a free trial (Article 10A) and to be treated equally before law (Article 25) is being repeatedly violated for minority inmates in prisons across Punjab province. Filed by Kashif Masih, the petition argues that non-Muslim prisoners in various jails across Punjab are being treated discriminatorily, deprived of their right for remission in sentence on the basis of completion of education and memorization of their sacred books like their Muslim counterparts.

Under Rule 215 of the Punjab Prisons Rules, 1978, any convicted prisoner can seek remission in their sentence if they complete formal education and either memorize or finish study of their sacred book—whether it be the Quran for Muslims, Bible for Christians, the Granth Sahib of Sikhism, or Hindu holy books such as the Upanishads, among others. While Muslims often complete their study of the Quran and are granted remission to their sentences, many minorities are unaware that they even have the option, leaving them without any viable avenue to reduce their prison terms.

Sohail Yafat, a Christian who works for a non-governmental organization dedicated to fighting for minorities’ rights, confirmed to Newsweek that most non-Muslim prisoners were unaware they could apply for a reduction in sentences through study of their holy books. A former inmate who served a 10-year jail term in Punjab, he said it was incumbent upon the government to educate prisoners about their rights of remission, as many lacked the resources to educate themselves. Another issue is the lack of institutional support to hear remissions pleas for non-Muslims inmates.

There is no formal mechanism for non-Muslims to apply for remission in sentences, said advocate Shahab Akmal, counsel for petitioner Kashif Masih. “There’s a mechanism and system available in jails that automatically applies to prisoners who complete their education or memorize the holy Quran,” he said. “But there is no similar mechanism available for prisoners from religious minorities,” he added, suggesting clear discrimination against non-Muslim inmates.

Attorney General of Pakistan Ashtar Ausaf told Newsweek that while the Constitution guaranteed equal rights for all minorities in Pakistan, problems arose due to “communication gaps” between officials responsible for the enforcement of rights and the citizens whose rights were being violated. “We need to see how many prisoners from religious minorities have applied [for remission] and how many were denied,” he said, adding that the principle of the policy was very clearly enunciated in the Constitution and its progressive implementation needed to be ensured.

According to the Punjab Prisons Department, there are currently 1,188 non-Muslim prisoners, including six women, housed in 34 jails across the province. Of these, 1,168 are Christian, 19 Hindu and 1 Sikh, with 829 currently under-trial; 320 convicted; and 39 condemned prisoners. The majority of prisoners belonging to religious minorities are in jails of Lahore and Rawalpindi.

Speaking with Newsweek on condition of anonymity, a senior official in the Punjab Prisons Department said that the former Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government had initiated the process of jail reforms in Punjab but had been unable to implement it. “The committee formed to rewrite the Punjab Prisons Rules did its job, but the new reforms could never be implemented due to lack of seriousness from the provincial government’s side,” he said, admitting that prisoners from religious minorities were not given any awareness about their rights.

Prison reforms

Thus far, Sindh is the only province that has successfully implemented reforms to the colonial-era laws that have governed Pakistan’s prisons since the country’s inception. The provincial assembly passed the Sindh Prisons and Corrections Services Act in 2019, replacing the Prisons Act 1894, with an aim at ensuring respectful treatment of all prisoners without any discrimination. Despite this, the province has also yet to grant a single remission in sentence to any religious minorities on the basis of completion of education or study of holy books.

Similar to Punjab, Sindh also lacks a mechanism for the religious study of non-Muslims, with the Sindh Prisons Department confirming that there was presently no introductory syllabus available for non-Muslim inmates. However, the Prisons Department said, the Sindh Home Department had been requested to amend Rule No. 787 of the Sindh Prisons and Corrections Services Act, 2019 to allow for remission of sentences for prisoners who complete religious education of their own accord.

The Sindh Prisons Department says there are currently 1,022 non-Muslim prisoners housed in 24 different jails across the province. Of these, 336 are under-trial—184 Christians, 142 Hindus, 10 Sikhs—and 666 are convicted prisoners—21 Christians and 665 Hindus.

The sole province that has ever granted remission in sentence to a non-Muslim on the basis of study of their holy book is Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The government of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (2002-2008) implemented prison reforms during its rule, extending remission of sentence to one convicted Sikh prisoner. The province currently only has 13 under-trial non-Muslim prisoners.

Equal rights for all

According to the 2017 Census, Muslims comprise 96.2 percent of Pakistan’s population; Hindus 1.17 percent; Christians 2.06 percent; scheduled castes 0.06 percent; and other minorities 0.06 percent. In a country of over 210 million, these are not small numbers, yet unchecked discrimination persists.

Pakistan Ulema Council Chairman Tahir Ashrafi, who has often spoken about the need to ensure equal rights for non-Muslims, told Newsweek this was the first time he was hearing of this particular issue. “If there’s a provision for Muslim prisoners, the same grant should be extended to prisoners from religious minorities,” he stressed, adding that relief should be given to anyone who completes their sacred books during their jail terms. Vowing to raise the issue with the home departments at both the federal and provincial levels, he said the matter should be addressed on urgent basis.

But the road ahead is long and paved with bureaucratic red-tape. Nonetheless, if successfully implemented, this could be the first step toward the fulfillment of a promise 75 years in the making, when Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah assured non-Muslims of Pakistan that they were equal citizens of the country, free to practice their faiths without any discrimination.

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