Bengaluru: Amnesty International India today blamed governments for more than two thirds of prisoners in the country being undertrials and advocated strict enforcement of existing laws and policies to ensure their rights.
Successive governments have acknowledged the problem of ‘excessive’ undertrial detention but have not done enough to address it, Amnesty said here.
This was stated in a briefing titled Justice Under Trial: A Study of Pre-trial Detention in India on the state of undertrials and pre-trial detainees in India, released at an event.
It said the country has one of the highest undertrial populations in the world with 67% of prisoners as of December 2015 being undertrials.
Blaming governments at both the state and the Centre for this, it said unless existing laws and policies were strictly enforced and the legal aid system was reformed, the rights of thousands of undertrials would remain at risk.
India’s undertrial population was estimated to be the 18th highest in the world and the third highest in Asia.
Amnesty said the country’s undertrial population has a disproportionate number of Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis, compared to their share in the overall population, while 29% of undertrials were not formally literate.
To assess the effectiveness of various legal safeguards to prevent excessive undertrial detention, between 2014 and 2016, Amnesty International India said it filed nearly 3,000 Right to Information (RTI) applications with every district and central prison in the country and various state government departments.
It said while several prisons did not respond to the RTI queries, responses from those did reveal major failures in the treatment of undertrials by the criminal justice system.
Noting that safeguards under law to protect undertrials were regularly ignored across the country, the briefing said few prisons appear to know how to accurately determine which undertrials were eligible for release under section 436A of CrPC, which lays out maximum period for which an under trial prisoner can be detained.
Legal aid lawyers not visiting prisons regularly, shortage of police escorts leading to thousands of undertrials not being produced in court for their hearings (effectively prolonging their detentions) and Home Ministry guidelines being virtually ignored by many prisons were among “the findings” that have been highlighted in the briefing.
Pointing at the shortage of police escorts to take undertrials to court for their hearings, it said between September 2014 and February 2015, in over 1,10,000 instances, undertrials were not produced for their hearings in court either in person or through video-conferencing facilities.
This in effect hampered their right to trial within a reasonable time.
In most states, legal aid lawyers visited prisons less than once a month, it said, adding that many states have relatively few legal aid lawyers, compared to their undertrial populations.
The briefing also makes several recommendations to authorities at both central and state levels, including standardisation of the remuneration paid to legal aid lawyers across India, establishment of a database to alert prison authorities about undertrials eligible for release.
It also calls for strengthening of the monitoring of legal aid lawyers’ effectiveness, and creation of a separate reserve of police personnel dedicated to providing escorts for undertrials to be taken to court.