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Rights cry for speed lost in system’s corridors

The Bengal human rights commission has termed the jailed undertrials’ demands “justified” and acted promptly but failed to get the government or judiciary to respond so far.

“Their demands for speedy trial, and bail if trial is delayed, are justified. Sadly, there is a lack of humanitarian concern on all sides, including the judiciary,” commission chairman Justice Ashok Kumar Ganguly said in September.

He said the commission learnt about the Presidency jail relay hunger-strike and asked for a report from the jail authorities on August 2. The next day, the jail superintendent reported the number of strikers and outlined their demands.

On August 6, the commission sent the jail report to high court registrar-general Ranjit Bag, requesting it be brought to the chief justice’s attention.

“The commission requests the hon’ble CJ, Calcutta High Court, may kindly give suitable directions for commencement of trial... and where trials have commenced, to give suitable direction for early disposal. This commission makes this recommendation in the interest of justice and ensuring the constitutional rights of the inmates,’’ the commission said.

More than three months on, the commission is yet to receive any response from the court or the government, commission officials said. “We can’t order the court, only draw its attention,” Justice Ganguly had said.

He said speedy trials would help the government too. “The state government should create the infrastructure for speedy trials by, among other things, filling judges’ posts. It will reduce the cost of maintaining the huge undertrial population in jails.”

The commission is yet to take cognisance of the latest hunger strike by Maoist prisoners in Presidency jail since Sunday.

New law minister Chandrima Bhattacharya was unaware of the new hunger strike in Presidency. The minister said she would speak to the prison department as well as her predecessor Malay Ghatak before considering a visit to the jail to meet the protesting inmates.

“Our legal system is time-consuming. We can’t help prisoners by bypassing it. However, I will look into complaints of unnecessary delays in trial,” she said.

IG prison Ranbir Kumar said that 16 Maoist prisoners had began a fast on Sunday but seven were persuaded to take food.

“Their demands for speedy trial and release of Gour Chakroborty (former spokesperson of the CPI-Maoist) are court matters. How can the government decide?” Kumar asked.

Till July this year, 57 jails in Bengal had as many as 15,013 undertrials, accounting for an overwhelming majority of the jail population. Four Calcutta jails top the list with 4,342 undertrials.

Buck passes

Ghatak, who was law minister till the second half of last month, had said he knew about the commission’s move and the issue had come up during his talks with former Calcutta High Court chief justice J.N. Patel before he retired. Officials said they were expecting the high court to send legal aid officials to jails to look into the prisoners’ demands. But that has not happened so far.

Ghatak declined to visit the jails to meet the undertrials in August.

“It concerns the judicial system, which I don’t control. I had visited jails during earlier hunger-strikes on the jail minister’s request because he was away. This time, he has not asked me.”

Jail minister Shankar Chakraborty, a lawyer, too declined to meet the undertrials. “Why should I visit them? They don’t have grievances against jail authorities, only against the judicial system,” he said.

On undertrials’ complaints about delayed production in courts — or none at all — Chakraborty again blamed other departments. He said jail authorities hand the undertrials over to police, who pass them on to court inspectors for production before judges.

Jail welfare officers are to facilitate the defence of undertrials who can’t hire lawyers. “But what can we do if the government-appointed lawyers don’t do their jobs properly?’’

Judge shortage

Ghatak said he had filled most of the judicial vacancies with the high court’s help. However, his figures show that only 38 of the 58 courts in the high court are functioning. Judges’ posts are vacant in 13 of the 151 fast-track courts.

However, the new government’s efforts to set up nyay adalats across the state’s 354 blocks to decide cases involving lesser offences has virtually been shelved following differences with the Centre on funding. Ghatak said he had started off with a plan to set up 62 such adalats.

“The Centre agreed to provide financial support only for the first three years. But the salary bills for 354 magistrates and the support staff of seven for each, in addition to infrastructural expenses, is too huge for us to bear. So we have not proceeded any more,’’ Ghatak said.

He is toying with the idea of setting up plea-bargaining courts for lesser offences, which will allow the accused to admit their crimes to avoid lengthy trial and detention, and possibly receive lighter punishment. But the legal community is not sure how it will materialise.

Also, the state cabinet recently sanctioned a plan to set up 24 subdivision-level additional judicial magistrates’ courts.

The Presidency jail superintendent’s report had admitted that some prisoners had been awaiting trial for seven years, but Ghatak claimed the longest period of detention for undertrials in Bengal jails was six years, and most of them had been in jail for two years.

Ghatak, a lawyer who has practised in the lower courts, mainly blamed the lawyers for the court delays. “Intermittent lawyers’ strikes, the undue time taken by defence counsel, and the prosecution’s delay in filing chargesheets are reasons for the backlog of cases.”