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Provide relief in cases of unnatural jail death, SC tells Centre, States

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Identify kin of prisoners, SC tells HCs

The Supreme Court on Friday directed the Chief Justices of all High Courts to suo motu register petitions to identify the kin of prisoners who died unnatural deaths from 2012 and order the States to award them compensation.

“It is important for the Centre and State governments to realise that persons who suffer an unnatural death in a prison are also victims — sometimes of a crime and sometimes of negligence and apathy or both. There is no reason at all to exclude their kin from receiving compensation only because the victim is a criminal,” a Bench of Justices Madan B. Lokur and Dipak Gupta observed.

  • Appoint counselors and support persons for counselling prisoners, particularly first-time offenders.
  • Extend family visits of prisoners and use phones and video-conferencing not only between a prisoner and family, but also his lawyers. Nelson Mandela Rules passed by the UN General Assembly says “merely because a person is in prison, it does not mean that he or she should be cut off from the outside world”.
  • State Legal Services Authorities (SLSAs) to conduct a study and performance audit of prisons.
  • Constitute a Board of Visitors which includes eminent members of society to initiate prison reforms.
  • Encourage open prisons. Semi-open prison in Delhi are extremely successful.
  • CAG in 2014: Hospital in Tihar Jail has a shortage of doctors and other medical staff ranging from 18% to 62%. “If these are the conditions in what is perhaps the ‘best prison’ in the country, we shudder to think what the position would be in other prisons,” SC said.
  • NHRC monograph: From 2007–2011, prisoners' suicides formed 71% of the total number of unnatural deaths.

Normally, the National and States Human Rights Commissions decide and award compensations in cases of custodial torture, deaths, etc. However, compliance by State governments is low as these commissions do not exercise any power of contempt. Besides, the States go for a long-drawn appeal in the high courts and later on in the Supreme Court, if necessary. This judgment is significant as the high court will now directly award compensation and ensure compliance by the States.

The Supreme Court referred to its judgment as a voice of the victims and an end to the silence of the dead.

The court said though laws have been made for payment of compensation to victims of crime, those in power have turned their back on the families of prisoners who have died unnatural deaths in custody. Human rights in a welfare state is not dependent on the status of the person – whether he is a criminal or a victim.

“It will be appreciated that merely because a person is accused of a crime or is the perpetrator of a crime and in prison custody, that person could nevertheless be a victim of an unnatural death. Hence the need to compensate the next of kin.” Justice Lokur, who authored the 43-page verdict, wrote.

The payment from the year 2012 was chosen because National Crimes Records Bureau has records of unnatural deaths from that year.

The judgment came on a letter addressed to the apex court in 2013 by its former Chief Justice R.C. Lahoti on the deplorable conditions of 1382 prisons across the country.

In an emotive few paragraphs, Justice Lokur writes about the “voiceless” and forgotten children who have died unnatural deaths while in custody or in child care homes. The court points out how both the Centre and States had never bothered to even compile data on how many children had died thus. The court said the pain and anguish of the families of these children are no less.

“It seems that apart from being ‘voiceless’, such children are also dispensable... It is time that unnatural deaths of children in child care institutions are seriously looked into by all concerned if we are to provide the children of our country with a better future,” Justice Lokur observed.

The court put the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development on a deadline – December 31, 2017 – by which it had to formulate procedures for tabulating the number of children who suffered unnatural deaths in custody or in child care institutions and take remedial measures.

Noting that the time for lip-service is over, the court referred to its 1983 Rudul Sah judgment which said “if civilisation is not to perish in this country, as it has perished in some others too well known to suffer mention, it is necessary to educate ourselves into accepting that, respect for the rights of individuals is the true bastion of democracy.”

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 3:20:42 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/provide-relief-in-cases-of-unnatural-jail-death-sc-tells-centre-states/article19693815.ece

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