"The prisoners are not to be compulsorily released. The primary object of the directions issued by Supreme Court is to protect the health of the prisoners and restrict transmission of COVID-19 by decongestion of prisons. The move certainly cannot be treated as a windfall for all the prisoners even when there is no imminent threat or apprehension within the jail premises as on date as regards spread of pandemic."
With respect to the order of the Supreme Court to release prisoners for decongestion of prisons amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has made certain crucial remarks while disposing of a bail application.
The bench of Justice Gurvinder Singh Gill has clarified that the Supreme Court's order dated March 23 for release of prisoners is not to be interpreted so as to mean that the prisoners have to be "compulsorily" released from prisons.
He observed that the same depends on various factors including, gravity of the offence involved, whether prisons are overcrowded or not and whether any prisoner has tested Covid positive.
"The purpose of issuance of directions [by the Supreme Court] was to ensure that the respective States assess the situation in their prisons having regard to the outbreak pandemic and to consider release of prisoners on interim bail or parole to prevent overcrowding of prisons so that in case of an outbreak of corona virus in prisons, the spread of the disease is manageable.
The nature of offence, the number of years to which a prisoner has been sentenced, the severity of the offence with which an under-trial is charged with or any other relevant factor, which the Committee may consider appropriate, would be the guiding factors for taking a decision," Justice Gill said.
The position was also clarified by the Supreme Court in its order dated April 13 where the court said,
"We make it clear that we have not directed the States/ Union Territories to compulsorily release the prisoners from their respective prisons. The purpose of our aforesaid order was to ensure the States/Union Territories to assess the situation in their prisons having regard to the outbreak of the present pandemic in the country and release certain prisoners and for that purpose to determine the category of prisoners to be released."
In the present case, the accused had been apprehended under Section 132 of GST Act 2017, which is punishable for a maximum sentence of 5 years.
The accused had thus sought bail mainly on account of the prevalent conditions due to the pandemic and argued that he was "entitled" to bail as per the policy framed by the High Powered Committee for release of prisoners against whom cases have been registered for offences punishable for imprisonment for a period upto 7 years.
Dispelling these arguments, the court noted that in furtherance to decision taken by the high-powered committee constituted pursuant to directions of the Supreme Court, a large number of prisoners had already been on interim bail and there was no longer any congestion in the jails.
The court further noted that till date there was no reported case of COVID-19 in the jail premises so as to pose any threat of spread of COVID-19 in Jail and as such the apprehension of the accused of contracting the virus within jail premises was misconceived.
"It is only when a person comes in contact with someone infected that there are chances of the other person contracting the virus. Since it is more than 3 weeks after the lockdown was imposed, the number of fresh entrants in the jail would be minimal. It has been informed by learned State counsel that there is no congestion in Nabha Jail and and that the number of inmates presently confined therein is less than the capacity of the jail and that another 47 inmates are to be transferred to other jails shortly. It has further been submitted that there is no reported case of COVID-19 within the premises of jail. From the aforesaid facts, it can, thus, safely be said that the prisoners within the New District Jail, Nabha are relatively safe," the bench held.
"This Court also draws strength from the fact that State of Bihar has chosen not to release any of the prisoners as the jails are not congested and there was no reported case of corona virus in the jails and the said fact was duly noticed by Supreme Court in its order dated 13.3.2020. Since the Nabha Jail already stands decongested and there is no reported case of COVID-19 within the premises of jail, therefore keeping in view the nature and gravity of offence and the amount involved this Court does not deem it appropriate to grant interim bail to the petitioner."
Justice Gill also held that the policy for release of prisoners did not confer an "absolute right" on the accused for release on interim bail. The court noted that the offence alleged to be committed by the accused had assumed enormity in view of a huge amount, as much as Rs. 20 crore, being involved.
"It is correct that the present case is a case where the allegations against the petitioners are in respect of section 132 of GST Act 2017 which is punishable for a maximum sentence of 5 years and that as per the policy cases of under trials charged with offences punishable for a sentence of up to 7 years could be considered. However, the offence assumes gravity in view of the colossal amount involved in the present case which is 20 crores appx. and is certainly a factor to be borne in mind while considering the release of the petitioner on interim bail. Infact the allegations are to the effect that the petitioners had forged bills and other documents in furtherance of their designs to cause loss to State Exchequeuer which prima-facie would also attract an offence punishable under section 467 IPC which is punishable with imprisonment for life," the court held.
Accordingly, the bail plea was denied.
Case Title: Rajinder Bassi & Ors v. State Of Punjab
Case No.: CRM-M 11954/2020
Quorum: Justice Gurvinder Singh Gill
Appearance: Advocate Jagmohan Bansal (for Petitioner); Sr. DAG, Punjab Gaurav Dhuriwala (for State)
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