//Punished without trial

Punished without trial

Rajesh Sinha, DNAINDIA.COM,October 24, 2006  

NEW DELHI: The problem of undertrials in India came to sharp focus recently with the judgments in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blast case. Even a high profile case like this, with a designated court and a special judge, took thirteen years to come to culmination. Even now, the verdict is only being announced and the sentence is still awaited.

According to the National Human Rights Commission, as on 30th June 2004, there were 3,32,112 prisoners in Indian jails out of which 2,39,146 were under trial prisoners. That’s more than 70 per cent.

The Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, 2005 enables under trial prisoners, except those charged with offences punishable by death, to be released on personal bonds if they have served more than half the maximum sentence for the crime they are being tried for. This is expected to provide the much-needed relief to thousands of prisoners across the country.

The new CrPC section also provides for the release of undertrials who are detained beyond the maximum period of imprisonment provided for the alleged offence. Undertrials who meet these criteria will have to file fresh petitions in court to be granted relief under this section. Another attempt to tackle judicial delay was the recent introduction of plea-bargaining for certain categories of offences.

It allows the accused to negotiate lenient punishment on an admission of guilt. This provision has been criticised as given the delays in criminal trials, there is a strong possibility of many a disillusioned undertrial prisoner admitting guilt despite being innocent.

While law ministry officials don’t have an exact estimate of how many undertrials will be eligible for release under the new law, the home ministry estimates the figure to be as high as 50,000.

That is going to take time to happen, though. In Delhi’s Tihar jail, as on August 31 this year, of the total 14,314 prisoners, only 2602 were convicts. The great majority—11,694 were undertrial prisoners.

Besides, says Prem Krishan Sharma, vice president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Delhi, there are numerous instances where a prisoner has spent far more time in prison than the prescribed jail term for the offence he is being tried for.

The maximum jail term for the offence could be a year or two while the person could remain a prisoner for ten years. There are people who’ve been forced to serve three-four life sentences without being convicted, without the benefit of bail, sometimes without even a single hearing of their case in court.

He said the law provides that in case an individual is convicted, the duration he has already spent in prison be reduced from the period he is sentenced for. However, during a survey in Rajasthan, PUCL found this was not being done. They identified 150 such cases. “After that jail authorities disallowed us from visiting jails. We had to approach courts and obtain permission,” said Sharma.

The statistics do not reflect what the victims of this state of affairs go through. What happens when after spending years in prison, a person is acquitted not because there wasn’t enough evidence or because witnesses turned hostile but because he was actually innocent?

“Can the state compensate him for the lost years – for the time spent away from children; for the loss of livelihood; and for the loss of reputation and dignity?” asks Mandeep Tiwana of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, only 31 per cent criminal trials are completed in less than a year. Some take even more than 10 years.

According to its study, Crime in India 2002, nearly 220,000 cases took more than 3 years to reach court, and about 25,600 exhausted 10 years before they were completed.

The Law Commission of India, in its report on Delays and Arrears in Trial Courts (1978), had recommended that a criminal case should be disposed off within six months.

In 1987, the Law Commission stressed the need to raise the ratio of judges to the population from 10.5 per one million people to 50 per one million. However, even after almost two decades, there has been little progress in this front.