Be selective

Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula on Monday told the parliament that the government

would address the demands of the prisoners who have been agitating in several jails across the country for the past five weeks. The home minister, however, said that the clemency would not apply to those serving their time for human trafficking, drug peddling, rape, smuggling and poaching of rare animals. Prisoners have been demanding the implementation of the report submitted to the government one month ago by the Jail Reform Committee headed by MP Ram Bahadur Gurung. It is reported that most, some say about 90 per cent, of 5,900 prisoners would walk free upon the report’s implementation. Initially, the prisoners had started their agitation demanding general amnesty on the grounds of the changed political situation.

There is no doubt that reform of the Nepali criminal justice system is overdue. It is also a good idea that an important part of the criminal justice system should be reform of the criminals so that they could be rehabilitated in society again as law-abiding citizens who could make a useful contribution to society. The committee report has suggested, besides renaming the jails as reform homes, dividing them into five major categories – university reform home, sports reform home, labour reform home, agriculture reform home, literature and arts reform home – and sending inmates to one of these, depending on their aptitude. Another recommendation is the provision for setting free prisoners after the completion of half their terms if they have improved their conduct.

The faults in the report and in the government’s intention do not lie in stressing reform of the criminals but in their over-emphasis on granting blanket pardon to criminals. It fails to play down the universally accepted concept that criminals should go through punishment for their crimes. Even the 50 per cent waiver in case of good conduct might appear to be a bit too lax. But criminals should not receive a general pardon just because they have launched an agitation. And certainly, not all of the inmates have demonstrated clear evidence of improved conduct. Therefore, the pardon should be selective, based on fair and impartial assessment. The government can also consider pardoning those, such as people who got much more than they deserved, including some innocent people who might have been victimised by circumstances. And pardon could, with justification, be considered also for those people who are still in jails for crimes, such as abortion, which have now been made legal. But the grounds for pardon should be credible. Criminals can agitate if their human rights have been violated or the conditions in which they have to live are abominable, or if they receive degrading treatment prohibited by law. But they have no right to demand freedom from punishment for their crimes. Blanket pardon would be gross injustice against the victims, compromise the rule of law, and risk leading to more crime. A government that yields to such outrageous demands would weaken its moral claim to remain in power.