June Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 9 years ago

Overcrowded prisons, the torture by police of arrested individuals, and bail bond values so high they exist only in theory… these are a few of the main findings in the annual report on the criminal justice system in Sindh, published by the Legal Aid Office (LAO) early last month. Present at the launch, among other members of the judiciary, were the current Chief Justice Sindh High Court, Faisal Arab, and former chief justices Khilji Arif Hussain and Nasir Aslam Zahid, who is also the founder of the LAO.

The team compiling data for the report surveyed 18 prisons across Sindh between October 2014 and March 2015, and interviewed 100 Under Trial Prisoners (UTPs) (all of whom are LAO clients), 50 judges, 50 investigating officers and 50 prosecutors.

One of the four authors of the report, Barrister Haya Emaan Zahid highlighted the importance of understanding the “evil that is overcrowding.” A problem only in adult male prisons in Sindh — the female and juvenile prisons are currently running under capacity — overcrowding is causing disease, substance abuse and, more importantly, radicalisation among male prisoners. Due to the lack of space, in 10 of the 18 prisons that were surveyed, hardened criminals are not being segregated from casual offenders, often resulting in the induction of the latter into gangs. Barrister Haya Zahid explained the need to train officers to spot radicalisation and successfully intervene.

An interesting trend that the report notes is that overcrowding was not a problem between 2009 and 2011, with the prison population in Sindh standing at just 12,988 (compared to the authorised capacity of 12,416). It is in the last three years that the number of prisoners has significantly increased. In 2012, the annual growth rate of the prison population was 10 per cent. This escalated to 17 per cent in 2013, and dipped a little to 12.5 per cent in 2014. One reason for the spike is the increasing number of arrests in the course of the Rangers’ Karachi Operation. DIG Sindh Police, Abdul Khaliq Sheikh, reiterated this point when he said that officers feel pressurised to make as many arrests as possible, given the poor security situation in the province. According to the report, 80 per cent of the prison population comprises UTPs, which means that only 20 per cent of the inmates have actually been convicted.

Given the problem of overcrowding, the LAO report emphasises the importance of finding alternatives to arrest and imprisonment, and seeks to change the focus of the criminal justice system from punishment to rehabilitation. The current Inspector General Sindh Prisons, Nusrat Mangan, said that his “main aim is to change the spirit of prison,” adding that we need “more correctional facilities, not prisons.” Mangan spoke about the vocational training that prisoners in Sindh are receiving, including art classes, cooking, stitching, plumbing and computer courses. Chief Justice Arab reiterated this point when he said that “punishment is a one-dimensional approach” and that arrested individuals need psychological and educational interventions as opposed to hard punishment that only hardens them further. According to him, the cost of reforming criminals is virtually nothing compared to the cost of crime to society. The report suggests that probation, conditional discharge and bail should be explored as possible means to mitigate overcrowding.

The report suggests that although bail is granted by judges to many arrested individuals, the exorbitant bail bond values set means that most are unable to pay it. The minimum wage in Sindh has been recorded as Rs 12,000 per month in the report, with figures even as low as Rs 1,000. However, bail bond values can be up to three times this figure, at Rs 40,000. Of the UTPs interviewed, half of them — 649 in number — are languishing in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay their bail. Presenting this portion of the report, Barrister Aiyan Bhutta said that bail of Rs 200,000 had been set for one of his clients, whereas his monthly salary was a meagre Rs 11,000.

In addition to the extremely high bail bond values, there is an additional sum that most arrested individuals have to pay informally as bribes to the police and investigating officers. According to the report, these amounts vary between Rs 10,000 and Rs 500,000, and prisoners are solicited for this money at every stage — from arrest, to investigation, to imprisonment.

Besides extortion, physical and mental abuse by the police during arrest and investigation is a common practice in Sindh, with 66 UTPs claiming that force was used against them during interrogation, and 47 saying that they were subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment.” The report notes that it is due to poorly trained investigators that torture is relied upon so much.

An aspect repeatedly highlighted in the report is the contrast in the answers given by UTPs and state representatives i.e. the police, prosecutors and investigating officers. For example, 91 out of 100 UTPs interviewed said they had not been informed of the grounds for their arrest — as is the law — whereas every single one of the 50 investigating officers the LAO team interviewed said just the opposite: that they had, in fact, done so. DIG Sheikh challenged this part of the report, however, saying that the reality is contrary to the report’s finding, and that 90 per cent of the time arrested individuals and witnesses are produced by the police in court, but they are not examined, calling for further investigation into the matter.

The report highlights several other aspects of jail life, such as the lack of importance given to visitation rights and to research on its positive effect on prisoners; UTPs not being assigned prosecutors; a very high daily case load for prosecutors (an average of 100 cases a day); and cases being adjourned for “frivolous” reasons.

Nevertheless, Nasir Aslam Zahid is hopeful. He began the launch with the pronouncement that he can “see light at the end of the tunnel,” explaining that Sindh, with only 100,000 pending cases, is actually better off than Punjab — that has 1 million pending cases — and even India — that had 32 billion pending cases 10 years ago. And the report does note several positive aspects, such as the ongoing construction of new prisons in Sindh that will increase capacity by 600 persons, and the fact that some prisons are already making use of CCTV cameras, bomb-proof walls and barbed wire to improve security. Mangan spoke of the meals that prisoners were now being given (chicken is served three times a week and beef and pulao once a week), with special diet plans for pregnant and nursing women and those with religious requirements. He also said that 80 prisoners have so far become professional artists. DIG Sheikh also shared the Sindh police’s plan to establish a detective school, like the one in KP, to improve the quality of investigation.

The report concludes with several recommendations by the LAO, including the need for better investigation, that should be overseen by an independent committee, better infrastructure in courts, and moderation in bail bond values.

According to Justice (retd.) Zahid, the retirement benefits for Supreme Court judges in Pakistan are “among the best in the world,” and this makes it incumbent upon former judges to contribute to society in whatever capacity they can.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s June 2015 issue.

Hiba Mahamadi was an Editorial Assistant at Newsline