In a Supreme Court-mandated exercise to decongest prisons on account of the coronavirus epidemic, police and prison authorities in Karnataka, in consultation with the state legal services authority, have granted bail to 636 undertrials and parole to 1,379 convicts across Karnataka over the last week.
Since March 26 when the exercise began, prison officials have also moved 235 prisoners from the congested Vijayapura and Mysore central prisons to other prisons as measures to protect prisons from coronavirus.
However, out of the 2015 granted release from jails, as many as 23 undertrials and 215 convicts have chosen not to leave prison on account of stiff release conditions, the Karnataka High Court was informed by the legal services authority Tuesday.
A High Court bench headed by Chief Justice Abhay S Oka, in a hearing of matters via video conference, has asked officials of the legal services authority to visit prisons and talk to prisoners who have refused to avail bail.
“The prisoners who have been granted bail but have not availed of the order of granting bail, the Secretaries of District Legal Services Authorities by visiting the prisons will inform such prisoners about their right to apply for relaxation of conditions of grant of bail and the Secretary and/or para-legal volunteers can render necessary assistance,” the High Court said.
There are a total of nearly 10,000 prisoners in nine central jails in Karnataka, 3,500 in 21 district jails and over 900 in 26 sub jails in the state. The Bengaluru central prison is one of the most congested with 4,881 prisoners, including 3585 undertrials, according to recent records.
So far 100 prisoners have so far been released from the Bengaluru central prison alone, according to the proceedings of an April 3 meeting of a high-powered committee looking into the prison decongestion exercise ordered by the SC.
The release of prisoners who are undertrial in cases where the punishment is less than seven years imprisonment, and persons convicted for fewer years than the maximum prescribed for an offence, from prisons around the country, was ordered by the Supreme Court on March 23 in the course of a suo motu petition taken up in the wake on the spread of the Covid 19 virus.
The jail inmates are being released “on temporary/interim bail for a period of two months or till such time the state government withdraws the notification issued under the Epidemic Diseases Act, or whichever is earlier,” the Karnataka high powered committee headed by a high court judge, which is carrying out the exercise in the state, noted in a March 30 meeting.
DGP warns of unrest in prisons
Karnataka Director General of Police (prisons and correctional services) Alok Mohan has, meanwhile, also warned of growing unrest in prisons on account of the lockdown in the meetings of the high powered committee.
“Alok Mohan, the DGP (Prisons & Correctional Services) has expressed that due to rising frustration amongst prisoners on account of closure of visits to jail by family members of prisoners, non-hearing of bail applications due to closure of courts, low physical activities due to social distancing there is a serious threat of riot and has suggested that preventive steps be taken,” according to proceedings of a March 30 meeting of the committee.
The high powered committee – headed by the chairman of the legal services authority and high court judge Justice Aravind Kumar, a home secretary, prison, police and judicial officers – has directed officials of district legal service authorities “to personally visit prisoners to assuage the pent-up frustration at least twice a week”.
The committee has also asked jail authorities to provide access to land line telephones to prisoners.
Apart from the Supreme Court-mandated directive to release all persons arrested for crimes that carry punishment of less than seven years imprisonment, the high powered committee in Karnataka is also considering the release of cases of civil imprisonment where people have been jailed for disobeying orders of civil courts. Those facing charges in terrorism cases, drug trafficking cases, money laundering, unlawful activities cases are not entitled for release under the Covid 19 linked temporary bail system.
Human rights lawyers in Karnataka are, meanwhile seeking a broader definition for the Covid 19 bail scheme to allow decongestion of prisons. Advocate N Moinuddin filed a plea in the high court seeking a direction to release life convicts and prisoners who have undergone more than 14 years of imprisonment on parole.
The high court has said that “if the concerned prisoners apply for grant of parole, the state will consider the application in accordance with law as expeditiously as possible”.
Students arrested for sedition remain in jail
Advocate B T Venkatesh has called for extension of bail to undertrials not involved in offences that have caused bodily harm, like young students arrested in the recent months in connection with anti-CAA protests. These students are languishing in prison since bail pleas could not be taken up as the courts shut down on March 23 in Karnataka.
Nineteen-year-old student Amulya Leona Noronha was arrested on February 20 on charges of sedition for beginning her speech with chants of `Pakistan Zindabad’ at an anti CAA rally. was stopped because she started the speech with. Noronha, who has claimed that she was trying to make a point that all nations are one by shouting slogans in favour of many countries, has filed a bail plea saying she did not commit an act of sedition. After Noronha struggled to get lawyers to represent her in court, her bail plea was finally set to be heard on March 24.
Similarly, three students from Kashmir arrested on charges of sedition in the Hubbali region of Karnataka for allegedly singing along a song with `Pakistan Zindabad’ in lyrics have remained in prison since February 15 due to opposition from right wing groups for their release despite the local police initially releasing them from detention.
“In the cases of Amulya or Kashmiri students or some other persons, the person who is complaining is influential and as a consequence, even when a minor offence is involved, they foist grave charges that entail life imprisonment,” said the human rights lawyer B T Venkatesh.
“Looking into such factors the courts must draw up certain parameters – like in the absence of any physical injury or attempt to murder – they must be enlarged on bail. If numbers in person have to be reduced, then more cases need to be included,” Venkatesh said.
“In cases with less than seven-year imprisonment, the police by and large do not carry out arrests. In the exceptions, the magistrate also normally grants bail in five to seven days’ time. In the prison there are very few persons facing punishment of less than seven years,” he said.
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