SC expresses reservations over govt’s coronavirus plan, questions Dr Zafar Mirza’s qualification

The Supreme Court of Pakistan on Monday expressed concerns over the government’s plan to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus as more cases were reported in the country.

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Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Gulzar Ahmed questioned the state’s preparedness in dealing with the crisis while hearing the petition pertaining to the release of under-trail prisoners amidst the coronavirus pandemic in the country.

During the hearing today, the top judge questioned the government’s action plan regarding the spread of the virus and Special Assistant to the PM on Health Dr Zafar Mirza’s qualification.

“What sort of an emergency has been imposed in the country where all the hospitals in the country have been closed?” Justice Gulzar remarked. “Private clinics in the country have also been closed.”

“No one knows what is happening on the ground,” he added. “Is this how we will deal with this pandemic? The Centre has nothing and they are doing nothing as well.”

To this, Attorney General Khalid Javed Khan informed the court that they have submitted a report in this regard. “The federal government is taking all the necessary steps,” he said.

However, the top judge further said, “The public has been left on their own. The provincial governments keep talking about distribution of rations and funds and the chief ministers keep issuing orders from their homes. Nobody knows about the ground realities.”

To this, the attorney general requested the chief justice to take a briefing in his chamber.

“What will you tell us there that we don’t already know,” Justice Gulzar remarked.

The top judge also questioned the qualification of SAPM Dr Mirza. “Zafar Mirza only comes on the television for projections. We are not coronologists. We just want to make sure the public is getting their basic rights.”

Moving towards the petition filed pertaining to the release of under-trail prisoners; CJP Gulzar said the court cannot release the under-trial prisoners. “The government needs to find a way around this. Those who have the virus will infect others as well. The government needs to impose precautionary measures in prisons,” he said.

Justice Qazi Ameen who was also part of the five-member bench said, the court was concerned about the lives of people. “If the infected person is not in the jail, others will be safe.”

Justice Atta Bandial questioned that if the infected person was not in jail, then how would the others be infected. “We need to make SOPs to deal with these situations. A large number of people live in police and army barracks and SOPs are followed there,” he said.

“Homes should not be compared to jails,” the attorney general said. “I have made my suggestions regarding the prisoner release.”

“What is the logic behind releasing prisoners doing time for serious crimes?” Justice Bandial remarked. “We are aware the high court does not have the right to act suo motu action.”

CJP Gulzar then asked the attorney general if he was sure the government would listen to his recommendations. “Can the responsible courts not grant bails? Islamabad High Court released NAB prisoners.”

The court also ordered for better facilities to be set up at Taftan border to screen patients and to keep them in isolation. “Proper quarantine centres and isolation wards should be set up at Taftan, Torkhan and Chaman borders. A quarantine centre should be set-up within the next two-weeks. Each person should have a separate room, bathroom and good food,” Justice Gulzar said.

The court then adjourned the hearing of under-trial prisoners till next week.

Cases could top 50,000

The government on Saturday had submitted a report to the apex court on its national action plan for combating the coronavirus epidemic spreading across the country.

In its report, the government detailed the situation arising in the wake of the pandemic and the severity of suspected cases.

“By April 25, the number of the coronavirus cases are feared to reach 50,000,” the report stated at one point.

The report noted that confirmed cases are expected to be lower than that of countries in Europe, and assures that the government is trying to maximize its testing capacity.

The federal government has said that it has put in place an emergency plan costing $366 million and guidelines have been prepared in consultation from the medical experts.

In a set of recommendations submitted to the apex court on April 4, senior lawyer Khawaja Haris had argued that the Islamabad High Court had announced the verdict in line with the law due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

He said that measures needed to be taken to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Shedding light on the IHC decision, the legal practitioner said that a high court can grant bail to undertrial prisoners under extraordinary circumstances, such as the prevailing one.

Haris said that the IHC verdict was not an impediment in the functioning of the executive branch of the government and the apex court should not declare it null and void considering the pandemic.

“Until crime is proven the suspect is considered an innocent,” he said.

Last week, the Supreme Court had suspended orders issued by the high courts relating to the release of under-trial prisoners amidst the coronavirus outbreak.

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.”

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