In this blog, Justice Imman Ali, a judge of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and a member of PRI’s Board explains how they managed to release 20,938 adults from pre-trial detention in 10 working days and 343 children from custody in the space of 7 working days as part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March 2020, many countries of the world went under ‘lockdown’ due to the coronavirus global pandemic. In Bangladesh, lockdown was put into effect by a ‘public holiday’ being declared from 26 March 2020 and extended several times through till 30 May. Elsewhere in other countries, around the same time, Parliaments, executives and Supreme Courts paved the way for courts to hold virtual hearings. Virtual hearings were given the green light in the UK through the Coronavirus Act and in India the same was done through their Supreme Court issuing a suo motu Rule and an order.
But Bangladesh was on holiday! There was no Parliament to pass any law and the Supreme Court was not sitting. We looked to find a solution so justice was not stalled, and ultimately the Supreme Court Reforms Committee’s tireless work led to an Ordinance allowing our courts to also allow virtual hearings for urgent bail matters.
Technical support was put into place with the help of the UN Development Programme and the Supreme Court IT department, and this allowed bail applications to be made electronically. Training was given to the concerned judges and court officials as well as lawyers. Through video conferencing we could hear these cases – quickly and in significant numbers.
In the space of 10 working days, 33,287 bail applications were heard, and 20,938 persons were released from detention on bail.
In the space of 10 working days, 33,287 bail applications were heard, and 20,938 persons were released from detention on bail. We also looked to decongest the ‘Child Development Centres’ which held nearly double the number of children that their occupancy rate allowed for – in the three Development Centres with a capacity of 600 only, 1,140 children were held, mostly in pre-trial detention. With the help of UNICEF, using virtual hearings, 343 children were released from custody in the space of 7 working days.
I believe that was a huge achievement, thanks to the support of my colleagues in the Committee, UNDP, UNICEF and other stakeholders who worked tirelessly to make the system work.
As many as eighty per cent of persons detained are in pre-trial detention, presumed innocent, and COVID-19 threatens the health and lives of these people.
Swift, bold and pragmatic responses enabled us at the Supreme Court to act and urgently reduce the prison population in Bangladesh. As many as eighty per cent of persons detained are in pre-trial detention, presumed innocent, and COVID-19 threatens the health and lives of these people. Of course, more work is needed both in the short and long-term to reform the system. With cooperation from the Legal Bar and other stakeholders the justice system can be improved significantly thus protecting and ensuring human rights for people and the rule of law.