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Victims of Apathy

by Sumeera Riaz

File photo. Money Sharma—AFP

Lacking legal aid, hundreds of women languish in jails across Punjab province, as cabinet continues to delay approval for Punjab Prisons Rules 2020

The Punjab Prison Rules 2020, regulations intended to replace the archaic Prisons Rules 1978 and make jails more “humane”, have been pending approval by the provincial cabinet for over a year, leaving hundreds of women languishing in prisons across the province because they cannot afford legal counsel and are unaware of the options for legal assistance available to them by the state.

According to the Punjab Prisons Department, just 16 of the 921 women currently awaiting trial in 41 jails across the province have received any legal assistance from the state, while 905 have yet to be provided any aid. The highest number of convicted and under-trial women prisoners, 130, who have not been provided any legal aid are interred at the Lahore Central Jail, followed by 129 at the Rawalpindi Central Jail; 90 at the Multan Women’s Jail; and 80 at the Faisalabad Central Jail.

Overall, per the quarterly report of the Federal Ombudsman, the highest number of women prisoners is detained in Punjab—920—followed by 240 in Sindh, 196 in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and 43 in Balochistan.

Rewriting the rules

Formerly a federal domain, the upkeep of prisons was devolved to provincial governments following the passage of the 18th Amendment, and it is the responsibility of each Home Department to update the prison rules of their respective provinces. While the Punjab cabinet has yet to approve its amended rules, the Sindh government has already notified the Sindh Prison Rules, 2020, incorporating the minimum standards established by the Bangkok Rules, a set of 70 rules focused on the treatment of female offenders and prisoners.

In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the prison rules have been amended but still lack provisions to ensure the protection of women and children; Balochistan has yet to amend any rules governing its prisons.

Aisha Nawaz Chaudhry, a PTI member of the Punjab Assembly who serves as chairperson of the working group tasked with reviewing the old rules and proposing amendments to the Punjab Prisons Rules 2020, told Newsweek that a comprehensive proposal for reforms had already been submitted. “We have revamped the 127-year-old jail laws and prison rules and have effectively re-written the clauses on women prisoners and juveniles,” she said, admitting that it would remain a draft until the provincial cabinet approved it.

Under the new draft rules, women prisoners, including pregnant inmates, mothers, juveniles, mentally-ill individuals, foreign prisoners and transgenders would be granted special considerations. The draft also bans the use of death-cells, solitary confinement, handcuffs, corporal punishment and invasive body searches of women and juveniles.

Chaudhry said that while awaiting approval for the new rules, the provincial government’s priorities had shifted to drafting a new Prison Law Act. In October, Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar also unveiled a Rs. 5.5 billion package for prisons in the province, including the establishment of prison canteens, and the installation of fans, exhaust fans, geysers, LED lights and air coolers.

Victimized women

The Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), a non-governmental organization representing the most vulnerable Pakistani prisoners at home and abroad, says women prisons continue to be at a significant disadvantage, both globally and locally.

Underlining the issue of substandard defense counsel being provided to women prisoners, JPP Executive Director Sarah Belal told Newsweek that many lawyers provided by the state to prisoners in Pakistan were doing little more than fulfilling formalities. “The defense counsel must highlight every aspect in favor of their client; they can even ask police to take investigative steps that they believe are relevant to the case,” she said of providing appropriate legal aid.

Regrettably, she said, most defense lawyers merely signed affidavits and did not pursue cases, meet their clients or try to ascertain the facts of individual cases.

“Through our work representing female prisoners on death row and the report on the Plight of Women in Pakistan’s Prisons, we know that many female prisoners in [Rawalpindi’s] Central Jail Adiala are awaiting their appellate hearings before superior courts due to a lack of effective legal representation,” she said. “Moreover, female inmates at the Central Jail Lahore are entirely unaware of legal aid schemes and how they could access them,” she added.

Referring to the cases of Sakina Ramzan—an elderly woman acquitted of drug peddling charges by the Supreme Court after six years—and Kanizan Bibi—a mentally ill woman who came close to being executed before the president stayed her punishment in 2000—Belal said they showed the blatant human rights violations and victimization experienced by women inmates. Such cases, she stressed, demand institutional accountability.

The JPP chief said it was unfortunate that the recommendations of the Plight of Women in Pakistan’s Jails report had not been implemented, noting it had been prepared in 2020 by the Human Rights Ministry on the directives of Prime Minister Imran Khan. The report, compiled with the help of Belal, highlighted many problems faced by women prisoners in incarceration and outlined critical and legal recommendations that could alleviate their suffering.

No other option

MPA Chaudhry echoed Belal’s criticisms, lamenting that the state was failing in its responsibility to provide legal assistance to women prisoners. “The question is whether the state counsel provided by the government is capable enough to provide quality assistance?” she said, adding that checks and balances must be implemented to gauge the performance of state counsels.

The lawmaker noted that a major problem was also the stigma faced by women who had completed jail terms. “There is a good number of women in jails who were convicted of murder and have served their terms but their relatives are not willing to receive them,” she explained. “They are forced to live within the four walls of jails despite the completion of their jail terms,” she added. The situation leaves them open to abuse and victimization, hampering rehabilitation efforts.

Fundamental rights

Earlier this month, the Lahore High Court took up a petition seeking directions for the implementation of the Women in Distress and Detention Fund Act, 1996, which guarantees financial and legal assistance to all inmates. Submitted by advocate Nadeem Sarwar, the petition maintains that the fund is not being utilized properly and hundreds of women are behind bars solely because of their financial situation.

Stressing that Article 14 of the Constitution entitles everyone—even the most hardened criminals—to their dignity, the petition argues that women are being denied their fundamental rights and the failure of the state machinery is furthering their suffering.

Punjab Advocate General Ahmed Awais admits that the quality of legal assistance being provided to women prisoners in the province is lacking. “There’s a need to revise the policy and provide speedy justice to the poor women in jails,” he told Newsweek. “A large number of women convicted of minor crimes are languishing in jails for lack of professional support by the defense counsel,” he added.

Claiming that the government was cognizant of its responsibility, he stressed upon the need for professional and responsible lawyers who could take up criminal cases and pursue them accordingly. “For this purpose, we need to engage attorneys at district level with the help of the provincial prosecutor general to address the issue effectively,” he added. The responsibility to ensure adequate legal assistance for all prisoners now rests with the Punjab government, with failure to act in a timely manner imperiling hundreds.

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