The Supreme Court on Monday said that prisoners who have been held at the detention centres in Assam for more than two years may be released on a personal bond and one surety, Live Law reported. The court delivered the order while hearing a suo moto petition pertaining to the issue of overcrowding and infrastructure of prisons in India in view of the Covid-19 pandemic.

During the hearing, Chief Justice of India SA Bobde called the release of prisoners to initiate decongestion of jails a “double-edged sword”. “If virus spreads in any prison or detention centre, it will become a hotspot,” he said. “Let the high power committees decide, [the court] is leaving it at the discretion of the state,” he added.

Last month, the Supreme Court had asked all states and Union Territories to set up high-level committees to consider releasing prisoners or undertrials on parole or interim bail if they are accused of offences entailing up to seven years in prison.

“On September 15 last year, we ordered the release of those who completed three years in detention centres. Now we will make it two years,” the court said.

Attorney General KK Venugopal highlighted that the incubation period is 14 days. “Those who are released should be kept in isolation for such period before sending back to home,” he said. However, the court ruled that it cannot determine the protocol for release of prisoners and asked the government to do it.

Bobde asked the Centre how it will ensure the “foreign prisoners” will not disappear if they are released. Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing for National Forum for Prison Reforms, told the court that the prisoners are not “foreigners in real sense”. “They have been living here for five decades but don’t have papers to show,” he said. “Many prisoner have sons and grandsons and they have, in fact, agricultural land over here. They will not run away.”

The court then said it will lift the requirements of bond with two sureties. “We will ask for one surety,” Bobde said, adding that the court intended to reduce the condition of surety of Rs 1 lakh.

The final list of the National Register of Citizens was published in Assam on August 31 last year. It left out 19 lakh people, or 6% of Assam’s population. People excluded from the list had the option of applying to Foreigners’ Tribunals established in the state, within a period of 120 days.

The Indian government on Monday confirmed 9,152 Covid-19 cases, including 308 deaths.

Follow today’s live updates on the Covid-19 pandemic here.