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SC Halts Moves to Release Prisoners Due to Coronavirus Threat

by Newsweek Pakistan
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Farooq Naeem—AFP

Chief Justice of Pakistan says lower courts do not have jurisdiction to order release of under-trial prisoners

The Supreme Court of Pakistan on Monday suspended decisions pertaining to the release of under-trial prisoners and petty criminals due to the coronavirus threat, and restricted all provincial governments and high courts from issuing any further directives into the matter.

A five-member bench, comprising Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed, Justice Umar Ata Bandial, Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel, Justice Sajjad Ali Shah and Justice Qazi Muhammad Amin Ahmed, issued the orders after hearing an appeal challenging the Islamabad High Court exercising suo motu powers to grant bail to under-trial prisoners.

On March 20, the IHC had ordered the federal government to release under-trial prisoners accused of minor crimes, and directed the Islamabad police to refrain from making any arrests in petty matters while the country was reeling from a COVID-19 outbreak.

The Supreme Court, on Monday, was informed by the additional attorney general that various courts had offered differing opinions on the release of prisoners and the to court should decide the matter. The chief justice, during the proceedings, questioned the authority of the IHC to order the release of any prisoners.

“How can a High Court take suo motu notice in this regard?” he said, adding that those involved in petty crimes should be released, as should those with two or three months left in their sentences, but there was no justification for releasing everyone apart from terror suspects, as ordered by the IHC.

The chief justice claimed “everyone” was aware of the prevailing situation in the country, but this did not allow for anyone accused of a “serious crime” to be released because of fears from the virus. He then adjourned until April 8 the hearing—two days after the current lockdowns are set to end—and issued notices to the federal government, all advocate generals, provincial home secretaries, Islamabad inspector-general, the National Accountability Bureau prosecutor general and the inspector-general (jails).

The appeal against the IHC verdict had claimed it violated the executive’s domain to frame policies about dealing with under-trial prisoners during the coronavirus emergency. The verdict, which had ordered bails to be issued for all prisoners facing trial for minor crimes, violated the law, the Constitution and public policy, contended the appeal.

Jails across Pakistan remain overcrowded, and provincial governments have taken the step to either approve bails or suspend sentences for petty criminals to reduce the threat of the novel coronavirus spreading among the prison population. Similar measures are being taken around the world. Afghanistan on March 26 announced the release of nearly 10,000 prisoners—mostly women, juveniles, and sick people—in a bid to curb the spread of the deadly virus.

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