SC dismisses Medha Patkar’s plea challenging HPC decision of not releasing prisoners

    The Supreme Court dismissed the plea filed by Medha Patkar and her organization, National Alliance of People’s Movements, along with social activist Meera Sadanand Kamath. The bench of justices comprising of Chief Justice of India SA Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, refused to interfere with the decision of the Maharashtra High Powered Committee’s (HPC) of not allowing the release of prisoners charged under Special Acts on interim bail amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The direction put forth by the HPC was that all persons who are accused or convicted of offences punishable with imprisonment of 7 years or less shall be released on interim bail or emergency parole as the case may be. But, the decision of the HPC was challenged before the Bombay High Court was that this direction would not have a bearing on the prisoners who are accused of serious economic offences or offences under the special Acts.

    The prayer of the petitioners was that the apex court should reconsider the temporary release on interim bail of 17, 642 undertrial prisoners lodged in jails of Maharashtra who have their final hearing pending. Further, the petitioners appealed to the Court that it reconsider the temporary release on emergency parole of 11,000 convicted prisoners who also have the final hearing in the matter pending. The bench, while refusing to intervene with the Bombay High Court’s order, stated that such enactments provide for additional restrictions on grant of bail in addition to those under the Criminal Procedure Code and this is what went in favour of the HPC. Therefore, the Court held,

    “The said categorisation in our view cannot be considered as unreasonable since at the first instance, based on the categorisation made a consideration is required by the Court for grant of interim bail if such undertrial/convicted person is seeking bail purely on taking benefit of the notification issued pursuant to such decision taken by the HPC. The exclusion made has a reasonable basis and cannot be termed arbitrary.”

    The verdict further stated that the prisoners were only denied the benefit of seeking interim bail, specifically on the ground that they are entitled to be released on bail considering the Covid­19 situation. No other legal right has been withheld. Addressing the question of discrimination of the prisoners by Maharashtra’s High Powered Committee as specified by the petitioners, the bench indicated that if a prisoner is discriminated against another prisoner in the same category for which the benefit has been provided by the categorisation made by the HPC, then only a cause of grievance and injustice would arise.

    However, the bench declared that it would still be open for the petitioners to obtain necessary statistics and if any modification of the guidelines is necessary for the future, “they will be at liberty to submit an appropriate representation to the HPC which would in that circumstance look into the same and arrive at a conclusion at its discretion depending on the need or otherwise to modify its guidelines”. The CJI also said that the Court will pass a detailed and reasoned order in response to the matter of almost 2,500 prisoners that are infected with COVID-19, and that more than 10 prisoners are dying every day, sometime in near future.