Compensate kin of inmates for unnatural death: SC

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If the fundamental right to life and liberty was to be given its true meaning, the Centre and the state governments must accept the reality and not proceed on the basis that prisoners could be treated as "chattel", it said.

"This is not a sad but a tragic state of affairs indicating the apparent disdain of the state to the life and liberty of individuals, particularly those in custody", the bench said in a 43-page order.

Speaking for the bench, Justice Lokur said: "The constitutional courts can go on delivering judgment after judgment on this issue and award compensation, but unless the state realizes that custodial death is itself a crime and monetary compensation is not necessarily the only appropriate relief that can be granted to the next of kin of the deceased, such unnatural deaths will continue unabated".

It also said that there must be "a genuine desire to ensure that guarantee to a life of dignity is provided to the extent possible even in prisons, otherwise Article 21 of the Constitution (protection of life and personal liberty) will remain a dead letter".

It further said that in such a situation, the State and its agencies should not be forthcoming in opposing every plea for bail or seeking remand of every suspect during the pendency of investigation. "What is needed is a review of all prisons with a humanitarian nuance", the bench said. It directed Chief Justices of High Courts to take cognizance of "unnatural deaths" as revealed in the NCRB data, identify the next of kin of the victims and initiate a hearing in public interest to grant suitable compensation unless already awarded.

It also directed all states to examine the availability of medical assistance to prisoners and take remedial steps wherever necessary.

The Supreme Court on Friday asked the high courts across the country to register suo motu PILs to identify and compensate the next of kin of the prisoners who died an unnatural death while custody during 2012 to 2015 or even later as even prison inmates have a right to live with dignity.

The bench asked the Secretary General of the apex court to send the copy of its verdict to the Registrar General of every high court within a week.

It drew the top court's notice to the increasing number of suicidal deaths in prisons. The court noted that the National Human Rights Commission had, from time to time, passed various directions to state governments but they were not followed, resulting in the continuance of unnatural deaths of prisoners. "If these are the conditions in what is perhaps the "best prison" in the country, we shudder to think what the position would be in other prisons across the country", the bench said.

As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 552 prisoners died an unnatural death between 2012 and 2015.

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