Apex Court order frees thousands of under-trials

New Delhi: Thousands of prisoners in India’s crowded jails will be freed as the Supreme Court on Friday ordered the release of those who have served half their maximum term without trial.

The court’s order appears to have forestalled an announcement by the central government, which was planning to write to all Chief Ministers on the release of prisoners who have spent years without conviction. Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had met earlier this week to finalise the plan.

“The home minister will write to Chief Ministers and I will write to Chief Justices of High Courts,” the law minister today said, indicating that the government’s plan stays.

More than two-thirds of the four lakh prisoners across the country, or 2.5 lakh prisoners, have spent years in jail because of prolonged trials and an ever-growing pile of pending cases in India’s notoriously slow justice system. 

The law says prisoners awaiting trial must be released once they have served half the maximum sentence they would receive if found guilty, but it is rarely implemented.

On Friday, Chief Justice of India, R M Lodha, said prisons across the country must comply with the law, and ordered local judges and magistrates to oversee the process.

“Judicial officers shall identify prisoners who have completed half of the maximum period of imprisonment provided for offences they are charged with. After completing the procedure they should pass appropriate orders in the jail itself for the release of undertrial prisoners,” said Justice Lodha.

Law officers have been asked to visit jails once a week for two months beginning October to identify prisoners who should be released.

The top court passed the order while hearing a petition on foreign prisoners still in Indian jails far beyond their maximum punishment. It asked the Centre to submit a road map to fast track the criminal justice system.




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