Human Rights Organizations & Defenders: Protect the prison populace during Covid

While governments the world over are trying to deal with the pandemic, Covid, human rights defenders are also seeking their help to protect a populace that is normally ignored or forgotten: the prison populace.

On Monday March 23, 2020, Pakistan-based leading human rights organizations and defenders – Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR), Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), AGHS, Public Lawyers Front (PLF), Defence of Human Rights (DHR), Legal Aid Society, Free Legal Aid Society For the Helpless (FLASH), Members of Permanent Faculty, Shaikh Ahmad School of Law, LUMS and Vice Chairman of Pakistan Bar Council, released a joint statement seeking the protection of prison populations of Pakistan.

“We, the undersigned human rights organisations and human rights defenders, request rapid action to ensure that inmates and staff of Pakistani prisons are provided adequate protection as cases of Covid-19 continue to increase across the country. As noted in a recent order issued by the Honourable Chief Justice Athar Minallah of the Islamabad High Court, “the confined space of a prison makes it virtually impossible to implement the policy of social distancing. The prisoners are vulnerable and exposed to suffer irreparably in case of an outbreak. Prisons, which are overcrowded, have high turnover and intolerable living conditions, could potentially become epicentres for outbreak of the deadly virus” The unhygienic and overall poor condition of prisons in this country has been extensively documented. A commission report earlier this year showed that contagious and chronic infections such as HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis are already rampant within the prison populations. Additionally, prisons across the country are filled well beyond their capacity and of the current inmate population of more than 77,275 people, more than half are still awaiting trial and are in jail for crimes for which they have not yet been convicted. In light of the gravity of risks posed to prisoners and the wider population, the Islamabad High Court ordered, “under-trial prisoners alleged to have committed offences falling within the ambit of the non-prohibitory clause are admitted to bail.” It also noted that elderly prisoners and those who suffer pre-existing health conditions should also be considered for release. In light of the extraordinary duty of care that the government owes to prison inmates and to the population at large to reduce the impact of coronavirus and enable everyone to seek to implement measures for isolation and care within their own homes, we call upon the Federal and Provincial governments to consider the following demands:

1. The governments should urgently release persons who should not be in custody in any case – including those detained for peaceful exercise of their fundamental rights to speech, assembly or any other right granted under the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973 and International human rights instruments.

2. All prisoners, including under-trial and convicted, whose offences fall within the ambit of the non-prohibitory clauses should be released immediately.

3. Pre-trial and under-trial detainees who pose no imminent threat to public security and this particularly includes those whose trials are delayed on account of the coronavirus outbreak, should be released.

4. Detained asylum seekers and migrant children should be freed.

5. In cases where the Provincial Governments are empowered under the Pakistan Prison Rules, 1978 and Section 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to suspend sentences, those who have served a significant portion of their sentences and are not considered to pose a threat to public safety should be considered for release.

6. Those in prisons with underlying health conditions or those above the age of 55 who are not considered to pose a threat to public safety, should also be released, since they are particularly vulnerable to the virus.

7. Female inmates who do not fall within the categories above but who have minor children requiring care during this public health emergency, should be accorded suspensions or commutations where there is no reason to believe that their release will imperil public safety.

8. The Federal and Provincial governments must work through the Inspectorate General of Prisons to identify inmates who fall within the above-mentioned categories so that detainees should not have to file individual applications. This will avert a catastrophic burdening of the court system.

9. Prior to release, all persons should be given a health screening and provided the means to return to their homes and abide further health and public safety advisories. The government must demonstrate cognisance of the fact that these are extraordinary circumstances and that people must have the means to survive without employment for some period of time.

Lastly, we would urge that the Federal and all Provincial governments make their plans to reduce the risk of coronavirus within their facilities public. There also needs to be a comprehensive plan in place to protect the staff, prisoners and visitors to detention facilities.”

Pashtun Human Rights Defender Idris Khattak still missing

In November 2019, New Pakistan had written about the disappearance of human rights activist and political worker Muhammad Idris Khattak. It is four months since Khattak “was forcibly disappeared on 13 November 2019 by four plainclothes men on the Swabi motorway interchange in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.”

For the last few months, both the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and international human rights watchdogs – Amnesty International and Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders- have been asking the government “take every possible measure to recover Mr Khattak safely, ensure that he has immediate access to medical attention and legal counsel, and take swift action against the perpetrators. Mr Khattak suffers from diabetes and requires daily medication.”

 As of end-February 2020, 2,128 cases of enforced disappearance are still pending with the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances. The HRCP, however, believes the “ number is far lower than the actual” and that “the government must take a firm stand against this abhorrent practice by signing and implementing the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.”

Pakistani State Losing All Credibility in Trying to Attack Dissent

Countries react differently to dissent, democracies normally accept dissent as criticism not as anti-nationalism or sedition. Pakistan, however, has a history of treating any one who criticizes the country as not just anti-national but an Indian agent.

The Pakistani deep state has long held a deep seated paranoia about the non-violent Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), from arresting its leader Manzoor Pashteen, to preventing the mainstream media from showing their rallies to referring to any PTM supporters as seditionists.

On Tuesday the state broadcaster Radio Pakistan in what most refer to as “an unprecedented move” claimed “that MNAs Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir — who are also leaders of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) — were “facilitating anti-Pakistan forces to destabilise Pakistan”. In a brief, two-line news report published by the state broadcaster earlier today, both Wazir and Dawar — who are elected members of the National Assembly from the country’s tribal areas — were referred to simply as “PTM leaders”. Highlighting first that both men had received “special protocol by the Afghanistan army” upon their arrival in Kabul where they were attending the oath-taking ceremony of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, the report goes on to say that they were “fulfilling the vested agenda of India through Afghanistan”, without providing any details to back the startling claim.”

Later, the report was “removed from Radio Pakistan’s website and tweets by the state broadcaster’s official account were also deleted.”

As a Dawn report shows, PTM “has been critical of the state’s policies in the country’s tribal belt, where a massive operation against terrorists was conducted in recent times leading to large-scale displacement and enforced disappearances. PTM’s leaders, in particular its elected members to the National Assembly, have come under fire for pursuing the release of individuals detained by authorities without due process. The army has alleged the party of running an anti-national agenda and for playing into the hands of the state’s enemies. Last year, Dawar and Wazir were arrested by police after a protest gathering in Kharqamar for allegedly using violence and clashing with army personnel. This year in January, PTM chief Manzoor Pashteen was arrested from Peshawar’s Shaheen Town for making a speech in Dera Ismail Khan during which he allegedly said that the 1973 Constitution violated basic human rights. The FIR said Pashteen also made derogatory remarks about the state. A day later, Dawar was arrested briefly from outside the Islamabad press club alongside several other individuals while protesting Pashteen’s detention. Pashteen was later released on bail on January 25.”