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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 179
February 28 , 2005

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Law opinion

Judicial lock-up in Shikarpur

Anees Jillani

It is against the law in Pakistan, and perhaps for that matter, in almost all the civilised countries of the world, to keep children with adult prisoners. I need not explain as to why this norm is practised. The colonial rulers introduced the formal system of prisons in the Indian Subcontinent, and soon thereafter also advanced the notion of keeping juvenile prisoners separate from the adults. Concepts such as Borstal Schools and Reformatory Prisons were initiated for the first time in this part of the world.

It was nothing but shocking then that children in certain prisons in the interior of Sindh were being kept with the adult prisoners till very recently. The military a couple of years ago tried to remove the children from the adult barracks in the Sukkur and Hyderabad jails and it led to serious riots. Fortunately however, the authorities eventually succeeded in segregating the children from adults.

I had thus had no option but to visit the Judicial Lock-up in Shikarpur (also known as Mukhtiarkari) during my recent visit there when I was told that children were being kept there with the adults. What I saw there is indescribable, and could lead to innumerable suspensions, eventual dismissals and resignations, and even toppling of governments in another country. Not here of course.

The clean shaven Mukhtiarkar at the Lock-up, Mr Imtiaz Ahmed Mangi, appeared an educated, decent and friendly person. But he looked so out of place in a building which was perhaps more than 150 years old, and one-third of which had almost collapsed. What looked hilarious was hundreds of sacks lying in a room with a collapsed roof totally covered with dust and some spilling paper all over. I told him that I wanted to visit the Lock-up and he looked bewildered. He was perhaps expecting me to express an interest in some major real estate deal. So without wasting anytime, we moved to the so-called jail. I told him that I am primarily interested in meeting any under-18 prisoner: there was one.

The child had an infected gun shot wound, and was lodged with about sixty other prisoners in one room. I had never seen such a thing in my life despite the fact that I must have visited several dozen prisons in my life. The people behind the bars across myself hardly had room to stand what to talk of sleeping in that place. While talking to the prisoners I noticed that there was a hole leading to an adjoining room. I was relieved but not for long for when I walked a few steps, I noticed that it was equally full. Where is the toilet I enquired the prisoners. Right behind them in a corner. I told the Mukhtiarkar that I had to see it. He said that he would not advise me as he could not guarantee my security once I enter the barrack. I told him that I was willing to take the risk; and all this conversation was going on in front of the prisoners. So the guard reluctantly and cautiously but of course dramatically opened the barrack iron gate. I entered and the prisoners suddenly lined up on both sides and started shaking my hands and a plethora of complaints started. I reached the toilet; it was clean and I was happy. It goes without saying that the prisoners themselves had to clean it as the prisoners in Pakistan are invariably their own bonded labour.

I asked Mr Mangi as to what kind of hell is this? And can it get worst than this? I told him that at least release the child, particularly so because he had committed no crime and was only picked up by the police following his gun shot wound after an inter-village feud. He said that it was not possible. I am always reluctant to act as sureties or guarantors for anybody but ended up even offering myself as the child's guarantor: Mr Mangi said that he was helpless as he did not have the authority to release the child.

We kept walking towards the other remaining barracks (there were a total of six) and I could not help noticing that the number of inmates kept thinning out until we reached the last barrack where there were only a few prisoners in the whole room. Now do I need to explain the reasons behind this luxury? And the last two barracks were the only ones that were getting any sun light. The others did not get any. One prisoner was even openly using a mobile phone and I could not help recalling the recent action taken by the Supreme Court of India against the Bihar Government for letting a sitting MLA from the ruling party use his mobile phone from the prison.

On the one hand was the under-18 prisoner and then I came across an around 75 year old man. He was shaking extremely violently and my first reaction was that he was perhaps simply acting in front of me. I told him to stand still but the other prisoners told me that he was not acting and this is how is shaking all the time. His crime: shooting. The guy could not shoot an elephant, unless he was really a good actor.

There are a couple of things now that should be kept in mind about the Shikarpur Mukhtiarkari. It was a Judicial Lock-up and there were thus no convicted prisoners. Almost 90% percent of captives eventually are absolved of all charges and unconditionally released by courts. What would be the compensation to the 270 under-trial prisoners locked in this Lock-up? Had it been the United States, they probably would have ended up recovering millions as damages. Here all they could earn from the courts of laws are lots of tareekhs (adjournments).

The second point about this Lock-up was its over-crowdedness. It was simply unbelievable to see so many people lodged in one room. And the crux of this whole phenomenon is the fact that there is a newly built District Prison in existence in Shikarpur that is lying unutilised for the past three years due to bickering amongst the various departments in the Government of Sindh. I leave it to the Government officials to explain the reasons for the delay in making the prison operational. But regardless of the basis, and how good it may be, how would anybody in the Government of Sindh explain the misery of these prisoners living in the enlightened moderate Republic.

Mr Mangi nice as he was insisted on my taking cold drinks and biscuits in his office. It was hard to do this after seeing all of the agony. I called the DCO - District Co-ordination Officer from his office enquiring as to why is the Government not transferring the prisoners to the newly built prison. He said that he was helpless and instead asked me to help him. Strange? This Lock-up is not a normal one and so the prisoners are not even allowed to go out at any time of the day. You can imagine the plight of the ones who are living in the barracks that are not getting any sun light in this cold. All kinds of ailments in such an environment are simply expected to be part of life. Mr Mangi mentioned in passing that scabies is one of the most common ailments in this place: the biscuit almost fell out of my hands. I found an excuse to rush to his toilet to wash my hands but there was no water. I found some drinking water to clean my hands. Hands hopefully were free of scabies but the mind has developed bad patches about this strange system obtaining in our Land of the Pure.

The author is an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.




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