NEW DELHI - India's Supreme Court Friday ordered the country's notoriously overcrowded jails to free all inmates who have served half their maximum term without trial, in a landmark ruling with potential implications for hundreds of thousands of prisoners.
More than two-thirds of India's nearly four million prison inmates are awaiting trial, according to Amnesty International, many having already spent years in prison.
India's criminal procedure code already states that prisoners in pre-trial detention must be released once they have served half the maximum sentence they would receive if found guilty, but the law is rarely implemented.
On Friday, Chief Justice R.M. Lodha said prisons across the country must comply with the law, and ordered local judges and magistrates to oversee the process.
"Judicial officers shall identify prisoners who have completed half of the maximum period of imprisonment provided for offences they are charged with," he said.
"After completing the procedure they should pass appropriate orders in the jail itself for the release of undertrial prisoners." It is not yet clear how many prisoners will be affected by the ruling.
Amnesty International India says thousands of inmates are kept locked up for long periods as they await trial, often for minor offences.
"The Supreme Court's order is inspiring and welcome," said the organisation's research manager, Divya Iyer.
"Two out of three prisoners in India are undertrials. Excessive pre-trial detention violates detainees' right to a fair and speedy trial, and leads to overcrowding in jails." India's archaic and desperately under-resourced justice system is struggling to deal with a huge backlog of cases - official figures show there were more than 30 million trials pending across India at the end of 2012.
Inmates can wait years to have their cases heard in court, leading to massive overcrowding in jails.
Many of India's prisons are thought to contain at least double the number of prisoners they were originally built to house.
Around 46 per cent of inmates being held in pre-trial detention are aged between 18 and 30, and around 30 per cent are illiterate, according to Amnesty International. Over 2,000 pre-trial detainees had been in detention for more than five years.
Rights defenders welcomed Friday's order, which came after the Supreme Court ruled in January that "inordinate and inexplicable" delays in carrying out an execution were grounds for commuting a sentence.
But they said much more needed to be done to help detainees achieve justice.
"Most of the time those languishing in jails are poor and illiterate people who are not aware of their rights," said Suhas Chakma, director of the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights.
"In fact, the government should also pay compensation to such people for making them suffer in jails." Iyer called for improved prison record management, systems to inform pre-trial detainees about their rights, and better co-ordination to ensure they attend their court hearings.