The country is considering to release on bail some 3,000 prisoners, including those under trial and jailed for bailable offences, to lower the chances of coronavirus transmission in crowded jails.
The jail authorities have sent a proposal along with names of such inmates to the home ministry.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan yesterday said they were discussing the matter with the authorities concerned. "It's still at a discussion level."
Talking to The Daily Star, Additional Inspector General (AIG) of Prisons Col Md Abrar Hossain said, "The proposal was sent as per the home ministry's order in light of the coronavirus situation. We are considering the minor bailable cases in which prisoners are awaiting trial or have been sentenced to imprisonment for two years or less.
"There are around 3,090 people who are in jail for minor offences and we have sent their names to the ministry," he said.
The AIG said they would not consider non-bailable cases like those over murder, rape, terrorism and drugs offences.
Once approved by the home ministry, the proposal will be forwarded to the law ministry. It will be placed before courts for final approval if the law ministry does not have any objection.
"The decision on bail will ultimately be taken by the judiciary as the matter falls within its jurisdiction," said Abrar.
Law Minister Anisul Huq could not be reached for comments.
Public health specialists have expressed concern that many prisoners might contract coronavirus in the densely populated jails plagued by unhealthy and unhygienic living conditions.
Sources at the prison directorate said there are around 89,000 prisoners at 68 jails across the country, against the capacity of 41,244.
In this regard, some legal experts opined that under trial prisoners who might be sentenced to imprisonment for two years or less should be released as it would lower chances of coronavirus transmission in jails.
Until Saturday, no coronavirus positive cases were reported at any of the jails. Forty inmates have, however, been kept in quarantine at different jails as a precautionary measure, according to a report, signed by Abdul Kadir, a deputy secretary of the home ministry.
The jails are being kept under strict vigilance to prevent the spread of the virus, he said.
Isolation centres have been opened at the jails in Kishoreganj, Madaripur, Pirojpur, Sylhet, Feni and Dinajpur, according to a report of the home ministry's special coordination cell.
Contacted, Attorney General Mahbubey Alam told The Daily Star yesterday that the magistrates concerned can grant bail to under trial prisoners who might be punished with short jail sentences, by examining relevant files in their (magistrates) offices.
Such under-trial prisoners should be released immediately from jail as their family members were anxious about their safety amid the coronavirus outbreak, he said.
Mahbubey Alam also said the magistrates can work on this at their offices as courts are now closed due to the virus outbreak and bail petitions are not being heard or disposed of.
The government may also release such under-trial prisoners on parole from jail for a short period of time, he added.
Eminent jurist Dr Shahdeen Malik told this correspondent that "the idea of taking revenge on alleged perpetrators of a crime is very strong in our criminal justice system.
"Like most other countries, we should also move away from this perception. The government should, first, release all convicted prisoners who have been sentenced to imprisonment for two years or less. Secondly, those who are in jails as under trial prisoners for more than two years, being accused of crimes not punishable by sentence of life imprisonment or death, should also be freed.
"Also, all cases of women prisoners should be sympathetically looked into in order to facilitate their release."
Shahdeen Malik also said "these measures will substantially reduce burden and backlog of bailable cases and will also help stem the ongoing outbreak of Covid-19 in the overcrowded prisons".
Advocate Khurshid Alam Khan, a Supreme Court lawyer and editor of Dhaka Law Reports, told this correspondent that the chief justice may constitute two High Court benches and assign some magistrates to hear the urgent bail petitions as the court functions are now closed.
"As far as I know, around 300 accused get bail on every working day from courts and a similar number of people are arrested every day across the country on an average. Now that the bail petitions are not being heard, the Supreme Court Bar Association may approach the chief justice for this purpose," he added.