The fatal attacks on Sarabjit Singh in a Lahore jail and Sanaullah in a Jammu jail led to the conditions of Indian and Pakistani prisoners being taken up at the highest levels. But there is no relief for thousands of other foreigners in Indian jails who had served longer sentences than warranted because deportation proceedings begin only on the last day of their sentence.
The latest case is that of Afghan Meer Vize, who overstayed his sentence period by seven months for want of a deportation order. He spent 12 years in a Jodhpur prison and seven months at a detention centre. He finally flew home last week, ending a long wait for his son, Najib, who struggled for months to get a deportation order from the Indian ministries.
Najib had to pay over Rs. 4 lakh in fines so Vize would not have to spend three extra years in jail, according to Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), which tracked his case and ensured a happy denouement through a barrage of Right to Information (RTI) queries to the Home Ministry.
However, another Afghan , Khan Zaman, continues to languish in the Jodhpur Central Prison as he is unable to pay a fine of Rs. 6 lakh for his release. CHRI is working with Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA) to locate his family members. With none to his rescue so far, Zaman may have to spend another 18 months in prison for non-payment of fine.
CHRI said it had to make repeated efforts to ensure the release of Vize. The government finally issued the deportation order after four RTI queries were filed by CHRI in this matter, in addition to the letters sent to the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of External Affairs and the President by CHRI, National Human Rights Commission and the Afghan Embassy.
The Home Ministry acknowledges that overcrowding in its prisons is a problem but foreign national prisoners who have finished their sentences continue to be held in detention. According to National Crime Records Bureau figures, there were over 6,000 such prisoners in the country in 2011 and in most cases deportation proceedings begin only on the very last day of the sentence, forcing a prisoner to spend longer periods in jail than required by law.
There is no systematic process by which a prisoner’s family is identified during the early part of the sentence to help him. But the problem can easily be addressed by initiating the process of deportation and consular services well in advance of release.
According to CHRI, the Home Ministry and the Ministry of External Affairs should issue suitable advisories for prompt action and standard operating procedures for their own officials to fix these gaps in the deportation process.
According to CHRI director Maja Daruwala, in addition to overcrowded, unsanitary and often dangerous prison conditions, overstays swell the population. Foreigners are particularly vulnerable because they often don’t know the language or the system and have no backing. Prison authorities, judges and consular officials can solve the problem with very little effort and much more coordination.
She urged the government to initiate Zaman’s process of deportation seven to eight months in advance from his release date and the Afghan Embassy to provide consular access so that a case of overstay like Vize’s is avoided.