Millennium Post

Prisoners of apathy and indignity

Conditions for Indian and Pakistani prisoners held in various jails have not improved, although both countries seem to be taking more interest in the matter at present. Only days ago, Pakistan released 51 Indian prisoners, mostly fishermen, from its jails shortly before Nawaz Sharif was sworn in as the new prime minister. Pakistani authorities expressed the hope that India would ‘reciprocate’ with a
similar goodwill gesture.

Relations between the two countries worsened recently after the death in Pakistani jail custody of Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh, following a physical attack. This was followed almost immediately by the killing of Pak prisoner Sanaullah Khan in a similar attack in an Indian jail. At present, Pak prisoner Fashiullah Khan is due for release and deportation from Guwahati central jail. He had been arrested in 1999 for alleged links with the Pak intelligence agency ISI and other activities. He has served his sentence. Assam home department authorities are in touch with the central government regarding his release and subsequent deportation. Thirty other Pak prisoners are also due to be freed, having served their time. There are 489 Pakistanis imprisoned in India on various charges, while 469 Indians are similarly lodged in Pakistani jails.

Observers wonder whether any ‘goodwill’ is involved in the process of the release of prisoners after they have served their full allotted time in jails. This is routine. ‘The question of goodwill arises if someone is released before he has served out his full time, or given special amnesty,’ says a West Bengal Home department official. Recently, Pakistani media reported in some detail an allegation against Indian authorities made by two Pak prisoners in Alipore Central jail, Kolkata. Tariq Mohammad (45) and Ishaq Ahmed (52) were arrested for several alleged crimes, including their involvement in the Khadim abduction case. They allege that for several years, they have been denied consular access, a recognised right enjoyed by prisoners. The abduction of Khadim company CEO Partha Pratim Burman occurred on 23 July, 2001. Already Aftab Ansari, the chief plotter and four others have been sentenced to life imprisonment for their role in the kidnapping that attracted nation-wide publicity. Recently, Union Home department authorities instructed state prison department for the transfer of Pakistani prisoners to Tihar jail near Delhi, for a period of four days to allow them consular access. Prison authorities in Kolkata pointed out that the Pakistani pair had been earlier lodged in Tihar jail for several years, during which period they had never been granted any consular access. Therefore, before they could be sent to Tihar, it was necessary to get more details about their status, background, the nature of their criminal involvement and the stand taken by different courts on such matters.

According to one official, ‘The right to consular access is never denied. However, all cases also have to be checked carefully, purely as a matter of routine.’ Tariq and Ishaq, according one version, are fishermen who had strayed into Indian waters and were first arrested by Mumbai police for their transgression.

Whatever the reason for the delay, doubts and tension in the private and official circles of both countries would continue over any matter relating to the sensitive issue of prisoners hailing from a ‘hostile’ country. For instance, most Indian prisoners returning to Gujarat from Pak jails recently reported daily humiliation on a regular basis from fellow Pak prisoners and jail authorities. Allegedly they were made to clean toilets, wash undergarments of other jail inmates and generally assigned to backbreaking labour even as fellow prisoners made merry.

There was open discrimination in food arrangements for them. Protests would result in severe beatings which often turned fatal, they alleged, giving specific examples. IPA
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