Such is the level of trust between the two countries that the slightest of attempts to facilitate an accused can earn one the title of a traitor
You are a spy, a terrorist or a saboteur until proven otherwise. This may be the situation confronting a Pakistani visitor to India or an Indian visitor to Pakistan apprehended for violating certain rules spelt out for them. On many an occasion, the visitors have been sent behind bars just for being at the wrong place and at the wrong time.
The level of trust between the two countries is so low that the slightest of attempts to facilitate an accused can earn one the title of a traitor. As a matter of practice, the accused are tried and left to rot in jails and their misery worsens when their respective governments show reluctance to take up their cases.
The number of those prisoners who have completed their sentence but are still awaiting release is also quite high. One reason for the delay in their release is the inability of the detainees to prove their nationality.
Both the Indian and Pakistani governments have been accusing each other of not disclosing the exact number of such prisoners in their custody. India even believes there are several Prisoners of War (PoWs) - from the 1971 war - in Pakistani jails. Pakistan, on the other hand, has similar claims about its citizens' undisclosed detention by India.
In the backdrop of this bleak situation, there appeared a glimmer of hope when Pakistan and India signed an Agreement on Consular Access to each other's prisoners in May 2008. Under the agreement, both the countries were required to exchange lists of prisoners in their custody on January 1 and July 1 respectively each year.
It was hoped the agreement would help remove hurdles faced by detainees in getting legal aid and proving their identities, and securing their release if declared innocent or on completion of their sentence.
While the convention is there, complaints about prisoners being denied consular access are on the increase. The apprehensions of ex-foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on the issue are on record. Last year, Shah alleged that under the said agreement India had (till then) freed only 157 Pakistani prisoners whereas Pakistan had allowed 562 Indian prisoners to return home.
Nationals of both these countries have been detained on myriad charges including straying into foreign land without legal travel documents. Mere stepping over the boundary line, even by error, can land the trespasser into the biggest trouble of his lifetime. He can be declared a potential terrorist or a spy rightaway.
There is no strict categorisation of these prisoners, says Rao Abid Hamid of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), adding that a person accused of one crime can also be implicated in others.
"Both the governments are not interested in pursuing the cases of their nationals and immediately disown those being tried on espionage charges. The bureaucratic hassles and costs are such that families get tired easily and give up quite early," he adds.
Rao, who has played an instrumental role in the release of several such prisoners, tells TNS that mere establishment of a detainee's nationality becomes a huge task. The hassles the relatives of a prisoner in the other country have to go through are countless and cannot be explained in words.
Rao says it is very difficult to get a visa in the first place, and once it's secured the relatives have to spend heavy amounts on travelling, lodging and hiring lawyers. "The visas are for limited periods, meaning the whole process has to be repeated again and again."
According to Rao, the Indo-Pak Joint Judicial Commission on prisoners raised great expectations but unfortunately the results have not been satisfactory. The recommendations made by the Commission have not been honoured by the two governments, he claims. The Commission has visited designated prisons in both the countries and met the inmates who mostly complain against non-perusal of their cases by their governments.
Advocate Awais Sheikh, lawyer of Sarabjit Singh, an Indian prisoner on death row in Pakistan, tells TNS that Dalbir Singh, sister of Sarabjit, came to Lahore on June 5 but was not allowed permission to meet her brother even after 10 days.
"It was strange, keeping in view the fact that she had clearly stated this as the purpose of her visa." The other members of Sarabjit's family including his wife and daughters had been denied visa by the Pakistani High Commission in India.
Awais says he submitted a request with the ministry long before Dalbir's arrival in Pakistan, but to no avail. Finally, a writ petition was submitted in the Lahore High Court (LHC) by LHC CJ Ijaz Chaudhry, whereby Dalbir was allowed to meet her brother twice during her stay in Lahore.
Awais says it was quite difficult for him to pursue the case of Sarabjit initially. "I was asked by the owner of my office to vacate it as he feared some agitators could set it on fire. It took me some time to convince people I was pursuing a case simply on humanitarian grounds."
A letter by a Pakistani prisoner in India, provided to TNS by HRCP, highlights another issue. The jail inmate has urged the Commission to persuade Pakistani government to pursue his case otherwise he would have to undergo multiple detentions even after the completion of his sentence.
What happens in such cases is that prisoners can be detained further under Article 109 of CrPc of India. The said article allows detention of a person accused of healing his presence in an area, especially when there is reason to believe that he is doing so with a view to committing a cognisable offence and so on.
Rao says hundreds of Pakistanis and Indians have expired in jails due to these indefinite detentions. "You would be shocked to hear that the ashes of around 60 Indian prisoners are lying in our jails. The situation is no different in India where the remains of Pakistani prisoners have got a similar treatment."
Development on any issue involving both the countries is based on the principle of reciprocity. A single 'unwanted' move by one country can lead to derailment of the whole process and evoke a tit-for-tat reaction from the other country.
The latest has been the case with Dr Khaleel Chishti, an 80-year-old microbiologist from Karachi. Chishti went to India 20 years ago and was implicated in a murder case. He has been in a jail in Ajmer since then, although the charge could not be proved. Now, as the Rajasthan government considers his mercy plea, BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad has already called for the release of Sarabjit Singh in exchange.
Sunday, July 03, 2011
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