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Pakistan's Overcrowded Prisons Ravaged By Pandemic, Amnesty Says

Pakistani soldiers patrol outside the central jail in Multan. (file photo)
Pakistani soldiers patrol outside the central jail in Multan. (file photo)

Pakistan’s handling of the coronavirus threat faced by tens of thousands of detainees held in overcrowded prisons has been severely criticized in a report by Amnesty International (AI) released on December 14.

The report, titled Prisoners Of The Pandemic: The Right To Health And COVID-19 In Pakistan's Detention Facilities, called for renewed efforts to free some categories of inmates, especially the elderly, women, and “prisoners of conscience.”

The Pakistani government has not fulfilled a pledge to ease prison overcrowding made when the pandemic first hit, said the joint report by the London-based AI and Justice Project Pakistan.

Instead, authorities have actually increased the number of inmates by over 6,000 between April and August, from 73,242 to 79,603. Some of the few prisoners who were freed were later rearrested.

“As Pakistan braves the second wave of COVID-19, prisoners remain dangerously exposed as the authorities not only failed to reduce overcrowding, they actually worsened it,” said Rimmel Mohydin, South Asia regional campaigner for Amnesty International.

The Islamabad High Court at the start of the pandemic ordered the release of pretrial inmates charged with nonviolent crimes as well as those whose bail had previously been denied, but in late March, the Supreme Court suspended all bail orders that were granted because of the virus.

“The Supreme Court’s decision checked the countrywide momentum to reduce prison populations and even led to the re-arrest of prisoners,” said the 37-page report.

Furthermore, certain prisoners whose release had been ordered by the Supreme Court based on age or time served were never released, according to Sarah Belal, Justice Project Pakistan’s executive director.

Also the women inmates whom Prime Minister Imran Khan ordered freed if they met certain criteria, such as those on trial or convicted of minor crimes, remained behind bars, Belal said.

The government had no immediate reaction to the report.

Pakistan’s prison system, with a capacity of less than 58,000, had already been overcrowded before the pandemic, accommodating nearly 80,000 inmates according to the World Prison Brief, delivered by the University of London’s Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research.

In Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, prison authorities stopped reporting positive cases among detainees in April, when only 86 cases were registered.

The report found that only 16,534 virus tests had been conducted over seven months in the prisons of Punjab Province, with 1,345 testing positive.

Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, had stopped reporting infections among detainees in April, when only 86 cases were registered.

The report urged the immediate release of all “prisoners of conscience” and also called on the government to “strongly consider” releasing pretrial detainees.

Pakistan recorded almost 441,000 infections since the start of the pandemic, with 8,832 deaths as if December 14, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

With reporting by AP
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