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EDITORIAL: Following up on the Supreme Court's ruling of last April, Prime Minister Khan has called for the immediate implementation of the court order for the release of under-trial and convicted female prisoners who fulfill criteria set by the court. It may be recalled that in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic the apex court had directed the government to release prisoners suffering from physical or mental illnesses as well as under-trial prisoners aged 55 or older. The PM gave the order after he was informed during a meeting with the Minister for Human Rights, Attorney-General for Pakistan, and an independent legal expert, that a large number of female prisoners remained incarcerated despite completing their jail terms for being unable to pay fines that came with the sentence. The government, he said, would bear this expense for women whose sentence was less than three years. Towards that end, he instructed the relevant authorities to generate funds through the Baitul Mal and social welfare departments. This is a commendable decision considering that an overwhelming majority of the prisoners belongs to poor families. Fairness demands that the same concession be extended to male prisoners as well.

A lot more needs to be done to ensure inmates are treated humanely and have access to basic facilities without discrimination on the basis of their status in society. As thing stands conditions in jails are appalling. All categories of prisoners - convicts, those awaiting or facing trial, juveniles, and those suffering from contagious diseases - are herded together in the same space. This is largely the result of overcrowding. A vast number of those behind bars are under-trial prisoners. According to a report Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari presented before the Islamabad High Court earlier this year, under-trial prisoners constitute more than half of the prison population, an alarming 71% of them in KP; 70% in Sindh; 59% in Baluchistan; and 55% in Punjab. A key reason for that is the glacial pace at which the justice system moves. Four years ago, in a shocking literal example of the legal maxim 'justice delayed is justice denied', the Supreme Court acquitted two brothers of a murder charge only to discover that they had already been hanged a year earlier. Another man awaiting justice in jail had died before the SC declared him innocent. Countless others remain languished in detention forever, forgotten by the justice system as well as their families who lack the resources to hire the services of lawyers to plead their cases and, in the event of a conviction, to file appeals in higher courts.

Clearly, a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system is in order. While hailing the Prime Minister's decision as a great move forward, Mazari said in a tweet, "this is just the start. PM has asked for a complete timeline on prison reforms implementation - our report is ready & now going to prepare implementation timelines with Barrister Ali Zafar." Hopefully, the report takes a holistic approach to all issues, including provision of basic facilities to prisoners, segregation of convicts from under trial prisoners and juvenile offenders, and an end to mismanagement and corruption. Most importantly, it must ensure fast tracking of trials and availability of free legal assistance to those who can't afford it.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020