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Home > Human Rights > Pakistan - India: A long wait for prisoners

Pakistan - India: A long wait for prisoners

by I A Rehman, 7 March 2010

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From: Dawn, 4 March 2010

A brief visit to Amritsar to help a Pakistani child in conflict with the law again provided confirmation that one of the many bad things India and Pakistan still have in common is a mix of contempt and callousness towards each other’s nationals in their custody.

But first a few aspects, pleasant as well as unpleasant, of the case of Master Ateeq Iftikhar, a 13-year-old boy from Shahdara, how he landed himself in the Hoshiarpur (East Punjab) Borstal, and the happy denouement in an Amritsar court.

The boy was arrested by the Indian police at Attari for crossing into India without any travel documents. One does not know whether the Pakistani authorities have tried to find out as to how the security robots failed to detect Ateeq’s presence in the Lahore-Attari train. But they must do that to ensure that no innocent person again lands himself/herself in trouble because of a security lapse. Besides, they cannot ignore the possibility that some undesirable elements, possibly aided by guards on either side of the border, might well be crossing the frontier without papers in pursuit of criminal designs.

It was a pleasant discovery to see the Indian authorities paying greater respect to their juvenile justice law than their counterparts on our side. Ateeq was kept at the Hoshiarpur Borstal and appeared to have been treated fairly during his 48 days’ stay there. The man who had brought him to the court in Amritsar was not in uniform, he was holding the ‘prisoner’ with his hands, no chain or weapon was visible, and he betrayed no annoyance as many in the crowd talked to the boy and tried to comfort him.

In many respects the Amritsar judicial complex looks like the civil courts’ complex in Lahore, except that it occupies a larger space, rich lawyers sit in reinforced concrete suites and police presence is meagre. There is the same rush of people, of all ages, in quest of hard-to-get justice. Inside the courtroom there is the familiar sight of lawyers pushing and elbowing one another in their attempts to catch the judge’s eye.

Since quite a few foreign nationals have been landing themselves in prison in Amritsar district their predicament evokes two different responses from the legal corps. One suspects that some policemen find it beneficial to tip off their friends among the lawyers regarding the arrival of a potential client and one who is utterly vulnerable. How matters proceed depends on the resourcefulness of the client’s family or his ‘handlers’.

Happily another kind of lawyer has also emerged, who is attracted by the unfortunate detainees’ ordeal and accepts the role of a human rights activist. A prominent lawyer in this category is Ajay Kumar Vermani, who presented the final arguments on Ateeq’s behalf although the none-too-easy groundwork was done by another lawyer, D.P. Sharma. The judge obliged them by ordering Ateeq’s release.

Vermani has been taking up Pakistani detainees’ cases for quite some time. He produced a list of 47 Pakistani nationals he found in Amritsar Central Jail alone. According to him he has helped 20 of these prisoners return home. These detainees were convicted by courts in Amritsar, Patti, Ajnala, Fazilka, Ferozepur and Gurdaspur during 1997-2008.

All of them completed their sentences during the same period. Technically they were released on completing their sentences and have subsequently been described as internees, waiting for the preparation of travel documents without which they cannot be repatriated to Pakistan. Except for four internees, consular access was provided in all cases — one in 1998, four in 2003, one in 2004, 10 in 2006 and 27 in 2008.

This shows that the Pakistani diplomats’ ability to gain access to their nationals, in the Amritsar jail at least, has improved since 2006. Still, there are quite a few heartrending stories. The most unfortunate Pakistani in Amritsar jail, Abdul Sharif, says he belongs to Balochistan. He has been interned since Aug 29, 1997. He was granted consular access in August 1998. But he is stilling rotting in prison barely 30 odd kilometres away from Wagah. The list of Pakistani detainees includes three Bangladeshis and an Afghan national, all worse off than the Pakistanis (the Afghan has gone home thanks to the generosity of his lawyer as the Afghan government could not afford to pay for his fare).

Vermani has another list of 60 Indians who are said to be detained in Pakistani jails — 37 in Lahore, seven in Rawalpindi, six in Karachi, two in Quetta, two in Mirpur (AJK), and one each at Mianwali, Kasur, Jhelum, Sialkot, Bahawalpur and Peshawar. They suffer as much as Pakistanis do in Indian jails.

Neither list is exhaustive. Many more Indians and Pakistanis are paying much more for their crimes/mistakes than the law on either side prescribes.

It will not be fair to ignore the positive developments that have taken place over the last many years with regard to Indian and Pakistani nationals held in the other country’s jails. An exchange of information is better now than, say, 15 years ago. Consular access is somewhat more easily arranged than before. The superior courts on both sides have been displaying a more humane attitude towards such detainees, especially in cases of inadvertent border-crossing. Numerous NGOs have been extending help to these prisoners.

However, both countries are still in the clutches of security bosses whose paranoia is incurable. Thanks to their obstructionist attitude the lists of prisoners exchanged by the two governments are incomplete. After completing their sentences, the prisoners spend many years in jails as internees. Many go insane and cannot even tell their home addresses. Since most of them are seen as enemies of the host state they are subjected to the most degrading punishments and torture. So powerful is the security lobby that it has caused considerable frustration to the bilateral judges committee that has otherwise been doing excellent work by visiting prisons on both sides of the divide.

The situation demands an India-Pakistan protocol concerning prisoners. It should guarantee prompt exchange of information, arrangements for a counsel’s services, observation of trials, prisoners’ transfer to their home country after a quarter or one-third of the prison term has been served. The protocol may later be extended to cover other South Asian states as well. Above all, it needs to be realised by both governments that nothing can justify the callousness with which they treat each other’s nationals. Ultimately, each government contributes to its citizens’ indescribable misery and is guilty of creating a climate that brutalises its own society.