LAHORE - Punjab Prisons Minister Zawar Hussain Warraich last week conducted a pre-dawn raid on Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat Jail in the name of “inspection” and caused embarrassment to many in the provincial hierarchy.

The first-ever visit to a jail by the provincial minister since the new government came into power, has not only triggered a big controversy but also put the jail authorities in hot waters.

A high-level inquiry is under way to uncover the truth, thanks to the Jail Superintendent for writing a “report” to the Inspector General of Punjab Prisons and highlighting the “mysterious activities” of the provincial minister.

Nowadays, Punjab Prisons Minister Zawar Hussain and Superintendent Jail Kot Lakhpat Ijaz Asghar are at loggerheads. The minister claims that he inspected the jail to check food supplies to inmates and other facilities. However, the Jail Superintendent says his boss (the minister) raided the jail in sheer violation of Pakistan Prisons Rules 1978 to hold a secret meeting with some jailed militants.

A former Inspector General of Punjab Prisons, who spoke to this reporter on the condition of anonymity, was of the view that the minister should have followed the official procedure before entering the jail.

“Any senior government officer or minister can visit any jail. There is no ban on jail visits but the due procedure must be followed. An officer of DIG or IG rank should have accompanied the minister during his visit to the jail,” said the retired official. “Since Jail Superintendent is responsible for the security of the prison he/she cannot be ordered to stay away during a VIP’s visit to the jail.”

An official of the home department says that whenever a high-ranking official visits a jail he has to inform the quarters concerned. Also, the jail staff accompanies the visitor in case he takes a round a different sections of the prisons. Similarly, the official procedures are also followed during the surprise inspection.

On the other hand, Prisons Minister Zawar Hussain along with six private men visited the Kot Lakhpat Jail in the wee hours and allegedly unlocked high-security barracks.

Not enough, the minister also stopped the jail superintendent and other senior officials from accompanying him as he went to meet some prisoners. The minister spent six hours inside the prison and held secret meetings with the militants of banned terror outfits involved in suicide attacks in Lahore and other under-trial sectarian inmates.

According to the jail authorities, the minister put the jail security at high risk by visiting the high-profile prisoners. His actions were also illegal and a sheer violation of the Pakistan Prisons Rules 1978.

Reportedly, the Kot Lakhpat jail houses 3,700 convicts and other inmates, including 300 death row prisoners, 45 foreigners, 70 high-profile/sectarian prisoners and those convicted by army courts, besides 2,200 other dangerous convicted inmates. Also, the minister allegedly forced all the jail officials to leave the premises and wait outside. He further directed the jail staff not to enter the prison until he completes his “job.” The minister also seized the keys to the cells/barracks of the high-risk prisoners, unlocked the cells and met and interviewed the prisoners in violation of rules.

When the jail staff raised objection, the minister ordered his men to lock the official guards of the high-security blocks in a cell for ‘not cooperating with him’. In his meeting with the under-trial militants of the banned terrorist outfits, the minister was also accompanied by six civilians.

The next morning, Superintendent Kot Lakhpat Jail Ijaz Asghar made these startling revelations in his detailed report sent to Punjab Inspector General of Prisons Mirza Shahid Saleem Baig. The IG Prisons then brought the matter into the notice of the Home Secretary who ordered a high-level investigation to probe into the matter.

The report sent to the Home Secretary by Punjab Prisons Department say, “According to the prisons rules 1978, the prisons guard is the custodian of the keys of jail corridor and it happened for the first time that the minister snatched keys from him and handed them over to a suspected civilian who was accompanying him.” The private men who accompanied the minister took into custody the official walkie-talkie sets from all the deputed jail employees, it alleges. The jail superintendent also took help of the CCTV cameras installed in the jail to prepare his report.

“According to the section 924 of the prisons rules, no one is allowed to enter the jail after it is locked at the specified time but the minister violated the laws and entered the premises without prior intimation. The minister violated the section 925 of the rules, got the barracks unlocked and met high-profile prisoners along the civilian men,” the reporter further revealed. He violated the section 725 of the rules by locking the night officer and security guards, unlocking the Barrack 4 of the high value targets (prisoners), creating a serious risk for their escape. According to the section 963 (ii) of the rules, no visitor is allowed to enter the jail without the assistance of the authorised prison officials.

Later, a spokesperson for the prisons minister denied the allegations of violation of rules by the minister. Reportedly, the minister had paid a surprise visit to the Kot Lakhpat Jail for routine inspection after he received many complaints against the jail officials. The minister’s spokesman claimed that the mobile phones service was also working when the minister visited the jail. During the inspection, the minister found some prisoners of routine cases locked with the dangerous inmates. The prisoners also told the minister that they were being served low-quality food, according to his spokesman.

The latest case of political interference in the official affairs was the fourth such incident since the PTI-led government took over the Punjab province. Earlier, a district police officer and two civil bureaucrats had objected to the political interference in official matters by sending similar reports to the heads of their departments.

The latest episode unfolded in the Punjab province barely a few days after Prime Minister Imran Khan while addressing to the civil bureaucracy in Lahore warned the government officers not to go in the public against parliamentarians.

The newly-elected ministers must be given detailed briefings by their departments so that they would be able to know about their limits. They must be taught what they can do and what they cannot do. And, if the new ministers are deliberately crossing their limits for personal gains then they must to taken to task.