The Bombay High Court on Wednesday held that the high-powered committee (HPC) constituted by the Maharashtra government had jurisdiction as well as discretion to decide which category of prisoners need to be released in view of the outbreak of the pandemic. The HC said prisoners, denied emergency bail or parole, cannot claim that their fundamental right to equality has been violated.
A bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Madhav Jamdar was dealing with a petition filed by social activist Medha Patkar through National Alliance for People's Movements, her NGO.
The plea challenged the order passed by the HPC, by which the panel led by Justice Amjad Sayed had decided to decongest the overcrowded prisons in order to prevent any transmission inside the correctional homes.
Patkar in her plea, took exception to the decision of the HPC, by which it barred release of convicts or undertrials named in special laws such as the TADA, MCOCA, POCSO, UAPA etc. The panel, however, allowed releasing of inmates accused or convicted under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), wherein the punishment is below seven years.
Advocate Satish Talekar, appearing for Patkar argued that the HPC had no discretion or jurisdiction to classify inmates to be released. He argued that the order was discriminatory and against the fundamental right to equality.
"Offences under special acts are against the nation and affects the very foundation of the state. Offences, which are sought to be checked by these special acts, cripple the economy of the state as well as the nation and affect the economic interest of the citizens," the judges noted.
"The special laws excluded by the HPC from giving benefit from the emergency parole/bail are enactments relating to terrorist activities, relating to economic offences, socio-economic offences, crimes against women and children etc. The purposes for which these special enactments were enacted, clearly shows that the nature of offence and severity of the offence contemplated by these special enactments is totally different from the IPC offences," the judges observed.
The bench further held that the prisoners cannot take help of their "right to equality" and seek bail.
"The principle of equality does not take away from the state the power of classifying persons for legitimate purposes. Equality before law does not mean that things which are different shall be treated as though they were the same," the judges said in their 59-page judgment.
"The HPC balanced the rights of the prisoners to maintain maximum possible distancing to contain the spread of COVID-19 as well as the rights of the society," the judges added.
The bench further said that I would be wrong on part of the inmates to claim as an "absolute" right, to seek release in view of the pandemic.