(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 5 July 2012, retrieved from http://newindianexpress.com/education/school/article558640.ece)
For years now, Sarabjit Singh has been a familiar name in the papers. Human rights activists on both sides of the India-Pakistan border have been trying to have him released from a Lahore prison, saying his conviction is the result of mistaken identity.
The case has taken an even more cruel turn over the last couple of weeks, when it was believed he was going to be released. Later, it turned out it was another Indian prisoner, Surjeet Singh, who would be released.
The exchange of prisoners between India and Pakistan has been particularly relevant of late, with Pakistani virologist, Dr. Mohammad Khalil Chishti, finally returning home to Karachi after two decades spent either under house arrest or in prison in India.
Why is this issue in the news?
After the release of Dr. Mohammad Khalil Chishti from jail in April, and his repatriation to Pakistan in May, there was some lobbying for the release of Sarabjit Singh from Pakistan as a return goodwill gesture.
On 26 June, the Indian media broke the news that a spokesperson for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari had announced that Sarabjit Singh had received a Presidential pardon and would be sent back to India.
Within a few hours, Pakistan announced that it was another prisoner, also serving a life term, Surjeet Singh, and not Sarabjit Singh, who was to be released. Meanwhile, celebrations had already broken out in Sarabjit Singh’s home and village. Angry voices from India accused Pakistan of playing games, to distract from the capture of Abu Jundal, a 26/11 accused who has been giving Indian authorities statements indicting the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
However, it was later found that the spokesperson had actually said “Surjeet Singh”, but mispronounced the name as “Sarjeet Singh”.
On 27 June, Pakistan said it would release 311 Indian fishermen held in that country, setting off more debates over diverting attention from the investigation into 26/11, and the debacle over Sarabjit Singh’s purported release.
Who is held in cross-border prisons, and why?
Many of the prisoners are held across the border as Prisoners of War, mainly from the 1971 battle between India and Pakistan.
However, it is thought that most are people from the border villages, held on charges of spying. The intelligence agencies of both countries have accused each other of recruiting poor villagers to sneak across the border using false identities, for paltry stipends. Some of them have been arrested on the less severe charge of illegally crossing the border.
There are others who have been held for violating visa conditions, or for illegally extending their stay in the country, or for travelling without passports or valid visas.
Many prisoners are also fishermen who have strayed into the territorial waters of the neighbouring country. The argument has often been made that this violation occurs because maritime boundaries are not clearly marked. Technically, the norm is that the fishermen are questioned, given a warning, and then returned to their own countries, along with their boats. But this does not always happen.
Why are their sentences so long?
As spying is a very serious charge, the prisoners are usually sentenced to death. Sometimes, it is commuted to life imprisonment. Some, like Sarabjit Singh, have been slapped with even more serious charges, such as terrorism.
In many cases, there has been no trial yet, or the trial itself has dragged on for a long time. Families of prisoners have often told the media they haven’t learnt of their incarceration for months.
When are they released?
Usually, there is an “exchange of prisoners” as a goodwill gesture.
At other times, prisoners are released on humanitarian grounds, citing long sentences that have been served already, old age, or infirmity. This happened in the case of Dr. Mohammad Khalil Chishti.
HIGH PROFILE CASES OF CROSS-BORDER IMPRISONMENT
Sarabjit Singh, a farmer from Bhikhiwind village along the India-Pakistan border in Tarn Taran district of Punjab, was arrested on the night of August 28, 1990. Sarabjit has said he wandered across the border because he was drunk.
The initial charge against him was illegally crossing the India-Pakistani border. But after eight days, Pakistani police alleged that he was Manjit Singh, the man behind a series of terror attacks in Faislabad and Lahore in 1990, in which 14 people were killed. The 4 blasts had occurred 3 months before Sarabjit was arrested.
Accused of working for Indian intelligence, he was convicted of spying and terrorism, and sentenced to death under Pakistan’s Army Act in 1991. This was upheld by the High Court and then by the Pakistani Supreme Court. His mercy petition was rejected by the Pakistani Supreme Court in March 2006, which upheld the death sentence. Another petition was rejected by then President Pervez Musharraf on March 3, 2008. However, his hanging was postponed indefinitely. He has been held in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail since 1990.
Five mercy petitions have been filed, and several high-profile lawyers have pointed out irregularities in the cast against him. Pakistani human rights activist and lawyer Ansar Burney says none of the 4 FIRs lodged in the bombings case contain Sarabjit’s name or a description that fits him. Also, though a single magistrate had recorded the statements of the witnesses in all the four cases, one in Faislabad and three in Lahore, the cases were lodged in four different police stations and two different districts. Also, none of these statements was made under oath. No incriminating evidence was found on Sarabjit when he was arrested. He wasn’t presented in an identity parade in front of a magistrate.
Another lawyer from the UK, Jas Uppal, has said Sarabjit’s identity was never verified or proved in court and no forensic evidence was provided to link him to the attacks. She also pointed out that the trial was conducted in English, which Sarabjit Singh does not speak, and no interpreter was provided. There have been allegations of torture, and Uppal says his confession was extracted under duress.
69-year-old Surjeet Singh is the former death row prisoner, who was arrested on charges of spying in February, 1982. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1989, and he was released from Pakistan into India on 28 June, 2012. He was reunited with his family at the Wagah Border, from where he walked into India. He is now back in his native village of Phidde, after spending more than 30 years in jail in Pakistan.
However, his release became controversial after he told Indian media that he had been lured into spying by a Border Security Force Inspector in 1968. He said he accepted the offer, was issued a fake identity card under the name ‘Anwar’, and visited Pakistan 80-85 times, and had brought vital information. He told media this before accusing the Indian government of neglecting his family and ignoring his plight, despite being aware that he had risked his life for the country. The Home Ministry has denied that Surjeet Singh was a spy.
Kashmir Singh, now 71, was arrested in 1973, on the Peshawar-Rawalpindi road by Pakistani intelligence officers. He was accused of spying and smuggling, and sentenced to death by a Pakistan Army court the same year. The verdict was upheld by a civil court in 1977.
He filed several mercy petitions, and was finally sentenced to an indefinite jail term, and held for 35 years. In 2008, he was released with a Presidential pardon, granted by Pervez Musharraf, after Ansar Burney took up his case.
Kashmir Singh, whom Burney had described as having become mentally disturbed, appeared quite lucid when he returned to India on March 4, 2008. He joked that his wife Paramjit was still beautiful, though she had got old, as he came home to a hero’s welcome.
Later, he alleged that he had been subjected to third degree torture for months, kept in solitary confinement in seven jails, and chained for 17 years. Then, media reports said he had taken up spying for a payment of Rs. 400 a month in the late Sixties, and gone into Pakistan under the name of ‘Ibrahim’.
Mohammad Khalil Chishti
Dr. Mohammad Khalil Chishti, a microbiologist from Pakistan, was arrested in 1992 in connection with a murder case, when he had come to Ajmer to visit his ailing mother.
Chishti, who is now nearing 80, was born in Ajmer, and went to study in Karachi in 1946. He chose to remain in Pakistan when Partition happened. While his older brother moved to Pakistan, his younger brother Zameel decided to stay back in India with their mother.
The story goes that Chishti, who moved to Saudi Arabia later, helped many of his Indian relatives find jobs in Riyadh. One of them was Idris Chishti, a distant relative who went on to lose his job and is believed to have held a grudge against Dr. Khalil Chishti for this.
The two met again in 1992, when 58-year-old Dr. Chishti came to Zameel’s house to visit their mother. Idris was also in town for a wedding, and stayed in the same house. After a fracas, Idris was murdered, and Dr. Chishti was accused of killing him.
Speaking to the media after Dr. Chishti’s arrest, family members said a fight had broken out when someone in Idris’ family fell over a walking stick that belonged to Dr. Chishti. Alarmed relatives called the police, and two constables were reportedly posted at the house.
However, they claimed, a mob came to the house in the evening and started harassing the women and attacking the men. The men retaliated, and someone opened fire, as a result of which many were wounded and Idris was killed. Dr. Chishti was arrested after the murder, but released on bail and kept under house arrest. He had to report to the police every 15 days, and this went on till 2010, when his daughter Amna, a Toronto-based social worker, wrote to the President of India, the Law Minister and the Chief Justice of India, requesting a speedy trial for Dr. Chishti.
On the instructions of the Law Ministry, the Jaipur High Court asked the sessions court in Ajmer to fast-track the cast. On January 31, 2011, Dr. Chishti was found guilty and jailed. His family moved the Jaipur High Court for bail, but it was rejected on the grounds that he hadn’t been in jail long enough.
A campaign began in India, citing his age, illness and education as reasons he couldn’t harm anyone and thereofr should be released. Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju then wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, seeking a pardon for Dr. Chishti on humanitarian grounds, as he suffers from cardiac problems and has a fractured hip bone.
On April 9, 2012, the Supreme Court issued an order for his release, and he was freed two days later. Finally, the Supreme Court allowed him to return to Pakistan, and he was reunited with his family on May 15.