Shoa Jawaid, the daughter of Khalil Chishty, had forwarded to me a copy of the representation addressed to President Asif Ali Zardari with a request on the telephone to ensure it is received by the president. Luckily, I succeeded in contacting two of Zardari’s close aides, who passed it on to him. Zardari appreciated the merits of this case and, during his very short visit to India, suggested to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to consider the release of Chishty on humanitarian grounds. In a stroke of luck, the Supreme Court of India, in a positive gesture, ordered the release of Chishty.
The governments of India and Pakistan must address human rights issues relating to each other’s prisoners, jailed in the other country. It is pertinent to remind the governments of their own decision to constitute the Joint Judicial Commission in 2007, comprising four retired judges of the superior courts of each country, which was expected to resolve expeditiously all problems pertaining to prisoners. Unfortunately, this has been undermined by either not allowing the commission to meet frequently or by not implementing the commission’s recommendations. Unanimous recommendations for the release and welfare of prisoners of the two countries still await implementation. If India and Pakistan abide by the recommendations of this commission, almost all problems of the prisoners will be resolved and they will be saved from unnecessary agony.
India and Pakistan had also entered into an Agreement of Counselor Access in 2008 to expedite the process of nationality verification of prisoners, which is necessary for repatriation. This process is not followed expeditiously and avoidable delay is caused in the release and repatriation of prisoners. This issue was considered by the Indian Supreme Court. Justices Markandey Katju and R.M. Lodha, in an order dated March 8, 2010, directed the concerned ministry to determine the nationality of foreign prisoners as soon as possible and if they had completed their sentence and their nationality had been verified, to have them deported forthwith to their country. After a similar petition was filed by me in the Supreme Court of Pakistan on behalf of the Pakistan Fisher Folk Forum, an identical directive was issued by the court. This resulted in the immediate release of the largest number of Indian prisoners (about 442 from Karachi) in one go in August 2010. On April 12 this year, 26 more Indian fishermen were released from Karachi. Although there are hiccups, it is heartening that the release of prisoners continues.
Soon after the release and repatriation of the prisoners in 2010, a delegation of peace and human rights activists from India and Pakistan, of which I was a part, was received by Sonia Gandhi over tea in New Delhi. She appreciated our efforts and thanked us for securing the release of such a large number of prisoners. She immediately informed the home and external affairs ministries and necessary notification was issued the very next day for the release of Pakistani prisoners who had completed their sentences and whose nationality had been verified. Such reciprocal gestures on the part of the judiciary and leadership of the two countries accelerated not only the release of prisoners but also the peace process. In the following year, we witnessed the exchange of the largest number of official delegations between the two countries. The exchange continued with the visit of President Zardari to India last week and the promise by PM Singh to visit Pakistan very soon.
Other than Chishty’s, there is a high-profile case before us: Sarabjit Singh, awaiting execution in Kot Lakhpat Jail, Lahore. For about two decades, the case has received wide publicity and the indulgence of the political leadership of the two countries. Voices have been pleading for Sarabjit’s pardon on humanitarian grounds or at least for commuting his death sentence into life imprisonment. Unfortunately, the stigma of espionage and his alleged involvement in terrorist activity is not easy to remove. Sarabjit pleads his terror charge is on account of mistaken identity. On his family’s appeal, the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, asked the authorities in Pakistan to convert his punishment on humanitarian grounds. I oppose the death sentence and, hence, support Sharif in this regard. I request the highest authorities in Pakistan to examine Sarabjit’s case with an open mind and to consider the quality of admissible evidence, if any, against him.
Another commendable order came from the Supreme Court of India, urging the Indian government to forthwith repatriate mentally unsound Pakistani prisoners. Justice Lodha, while passing this order, was moved by the pitiable condition of 21 prisoners, 16 of whom are mentally unsound and five deaf or mute, but who have to suffer jail even though they have served their sentences.
I admire the effective support the apex courts of both the countries have offered to the human rights of the prisoners. But we have many more Chishtys in India and Pakistan.
The writer is a former Pakistan minister for human rights and law and justice