Formalities for their transfer to India under way

Saare, Nasiraannu.” (Sir, this is Nasir). I first heard the voice announcing him over the phone a fortnight after I moved to Colombo as The Hindu’s Correspondent in December 2010. Over the next two years and two months, I would hear this voice often, sometimes in excited whispers, and, at other times, in anxious half-sentence wails.

Nasir was one of the 31 Indian nationals serving a term in Colombo’s Welikada prison. Almost everyone in the group had similar stories — lured by the chance to make quick money, they were trapped into carrying some contraband into Sri Lanka. Most were very poor, and saw this as an opportunity to escape the grim grip of hunger, and penury. “Most of us are in the same boat. Finally we end up here,” said one of them, not wishing to be identified.

“The longest a prisoner has spent in a Sri Lankan jail is 25 years,” said Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Ashok K. Kantha. “On an average, the sentenced persons have spent between 5 and 10 years,” he added. On February 27, there were a total of 52 Indian prisoners in Sri Lankan jails. Of this 31 have been convicted.

For the sentenced persons, hope first dawned on June 9, 2010 when the India-Sri Lanka bilateral Agreement on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons was signed. This provides for the conditions under which such transfers can take place and the various obligations of the transferring State and the receiving State. Accordingly, the requests made by eligible persons are processed by Colombo and forwarded to the Government of India for completion of the legal procedures. The transferred persons would be completing the remainder of their terms in India.

Over the next two years, every time Nasir and the other prisoners spoke to this correspondent over the phone, they had one question: “When will we go back?”

A frustrating two years and eight months after the agreement was signed, they got the answer last Friday. Officials from the Indian High Commission arrived to measure their foot size and collar size: they were being given new clothes. Also, they were again subjected to medical examination.

Finally, on Wednesday, two of the 31 eligible sentenced Indian nationals, serving prison terms, were transferred to Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. All formalities in respect of 20 persons (six from Kerala and 14 from Tamil Nadu), including the two transferred earlier on Wednesday, have been completed and they will be transferred within a week. “Formalities with regard to the remaining 11 eligible persons are already under way,” Mr. Kantha said.

The inordinate delay was because prison is a State subject in India. The consent of the State has to be taken, and the State had to send its police to escort back the sentenced persons. The route that the communication takes from the Indian High Commission, after its completes formalities at the Sri Lankan end is as follows: The Ministry of External Affairs sends the communication to the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Home Ministry forwards it to the State government. The Heads of Police in State governments in consultation with District Collectors/Magistrates verify the addresses of the prisoners (most travel in false names), and these are communicated back. The fact that the prisoners did not have means to pull strings in the power structure meant that the communication back and forth took longer.

The Hindu took up the cause of the prisoners and has highlighted their plight, a fact that was acknowledged by the Indian officials and the prisoners here. The Hindu had also reported on the courage of some of the Indian prisoners, just as riots broke out in the Welikada prison recently. They showed remarkable courage in traversing many blocks amid gunfire to get to the Tamil Nadu fishermen, who had just arrived at Welikada. They took them to the convicts block, and all the foreigners stayed together till the rioting subsided.

On Thursday, Nasir will leave Welikada, his home for over a decade. His new home will be the Thiruvananthapuram Central prison.

“At least in Kerala, my family can come and visit me,” he said, over the phone. He had not met them since he left Kerala on a fateful day, more than a decade ago.

In Sri Lanka, the process of transferring sentenced persons has been finally set in motion. In the Maldives, where 14 ailing Indian prisoners are anxiously awaiting shifting, there appears no hope in sight.