Coronavirus crisis: SC suspends all high court orders regarding release of prisoners

The Supreme Court on Monday suspended orders issued by the high courts relating to the release of under-trial prisoners amidst the coronavirus outbreak in the country.

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In its order, the top court said: “No further order shall be passed by any of the high courts and by any of the provincial governments/ICT/Gilgit-Baltistan of releasing the prisoners from the jails.”

It added if any order has been passed regarding the release of the prisoners and not given effect or implemented till now, the same shall not be acted upon until further orders by the Supreme Court.

The apex court further suspended the implementation of the Islamabad High Court’s orders regarding the release of under-trial prisoners.

During today’s hearing, Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Gulzar Ahmed questioned the powers of the IHC in issuing orders to release prisoners to pre-empt the spread of the virus in prisons.

“How can high courts take suo motu notice,” CJP Gulzar remarked while reviewing a decision taken by the IHC on March 26 ordering the release of 24 under-trial suspects named in NAB references.

The accountability bureau had contested the decision, with an additional prosecutor of the bureau asking the court to arrange for coronavirus testing of the suspects on an immediate basis.

“Why do you want to keep under-trial suspects in detention? What if the virus spreads to other prisoners while the test results are awaited? Who will be responsible?” the IHC chief justice had asked the prosecutor while issuing the orders.

“During trial, suspects are considered innocent until the trial has concluded,” IHC CJ Minallah had noted in his remarks. He advised the prosecution to build up solid cases against suspects and provide evidence in court.

IHC orders bail for prisoners on trial for minor crimes

In an earlier decision, the IHC had ordered the issuance of bail for prisoners who were facing trial for minor crimes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. IHC Chief Justice Minallah had issued the order after hearing a case regarding 1,362 prisoners incarcerated in crowded jails.

During the hearing, the court inquired from officials if prisoners who were facing jail-time without having been tried could be released.

Deputy Commissioner Islamabad Hamza Shafqat had assured the court that no prisoner held at Adiala Jail has been infected with the virus.

However, Justice Minallah worried that the coronavirus outbreak had worsened in China after it spread among prisoners. He said that the prisons in Pakistan were in dire straits and if any prisoner becomes infected; the situation would get out of control.

PBC, SCBA express concern over petition filed against IHC verdict

In a joint statement issued on Saturday, Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) Vice Chairman Abid Saqi and Syed Qalb-i-Hassan, President, Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) expressed their concern over the filing of a petition in the Supreme Court, challenging thereby the judgement of the IHC for the release of 408 prisoners from prisons in the wake of COVID-19 risk.

They recalled that all the bar bodies and the legal fraternity have fully appreciated and supported the timely decision/judgment of the IHC regarding the conditional release of 408 prisoners from Adiala Jail, which has been taken/passed in peculiar circumstances arisen as a result of the outbreak of deadly COVID-19, just on humanitarian and compassionate grounds only in cases of under-trial prisoners.

They also expressed the hope that the other superior courts may also take/pass similar decisions/orders on humanitarian grounds that being the demand of the grave situation confronting Pakistan.

“The rapid increase in spread of coronavirus the world over, which has also gravely attacked Pakistan as well, needs concerted efforts and practical contributions on war footing basis by all concerned, within sphere of their activities, including our courts, to combat the deadly disease”, they maintained.

They said that Pakistan is one of very few countries in the world, having a large percentage of under-trial prisoners which is one of the main causes of overcrowding of our jails.

“The verdict of the apex court of the country surely will improvise the system of dispensation of justice pertaining to preservation of human rights”, they said.

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