Millennium Post

Prisoners of inhumanity

Though there was some confusion over the identity of the prisoner to be released from a Pakistani prison, with it turning out to be Surjeet Singh and not Sarabjit, nonetheless the issue of such prisoners has once again been highlighted. It is possible that the Pakistanis developed cold feet about releasing Sarabjit, whose case has been much publicised and may, therefore, be politically delicate for the domestic agencies that call the shots in that country. However, there are many such prisoners languishing in Pakistani jails and vice versa. Their numbers may be in the hundreds and they include fishermen and farmers as well. More mysterious is the case of the missing Indian defence personnel, including from the '71 war, whose presence the Pakistan government denies, though it is estimated that there may be as many as 73 of them. Most of the prisoners in the jails are innocent, like Surjeet and Sarabjit, whose only crime is that they found themselves on the wrong side of the border, having strayed across. This particularly happens to the farmers and fishermen who, in the pursuit of their livelihood, unwittingly stray across land or maritime borders into the other country. Once caught by the authorities they are often suspected of being spies and then imprisoned and left in jails indefinitely. Though they are sometimes released as gestures of goodwill when the  relations between the two countries are good, India-Pakistan relations are notoriously unstable. Most unfortunately, the 26/11 attack in Mumbai pushed the plight of these prisoners into the background.

It is sad but true that many of these prisoners are treated badly. They are not given access to consular services as is their right under international law. The authorities of their country of origin are often not informed of their arrest until after they have served their prison sentence. many prisoners are imprisoned without a trial. The few that are tried frequently do not have access to legal representation. Moreover, once in prison, they are often forgotten about and left in prison even after they have served their term of imprisonment. In January 2007, during the Indian foreign minister's visit to Pakistan, a Judicial Committee on Prisoners was formed to ensure the humane treatment of prisoners. This committee made several recommendations, including the immediate release of fishermen and the exchange of lists of prisoners in jail. A lot more needs to be done. The issue of all such prisoners is a humanitarian one and should not be hostage to the state of the relations between the two countries.
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