There was high drama at Landhi Jail here on Wednesday when 100 Indian fishermen detained at the prison were first nearly released prior to their repatriation but had to be returned to confinement as Indian authorities, caught unawares by Pakistan’s decision to free them, had not made the necessary preparations for sending them back home.
The move by the jail authorities to free the fishermen followed an announcement on Tuesday that Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani had “unilaterally” decided to repatriate them to India on December 24.
On Wednesday morning, officials at Landhi jail, acting on the orders of the Sindh Home Department, began making arrangements for the release of the fishermen.
The fishermen, who had been caught for trespassing in Pakistani waters, were taken out of the barracks where they were detained. In an open space within the jail premises, the fishermen assembled with their belongings, including farewell gifts from the jail and a non-government organisation for prisoners’ welfare called Saiban.
The NGO had even arranged buses to take the fishermen to Wagah border. The Pakistani media was present in full force, and Justice (retired) Nasir Aslam Zahid, a member of the bilateral judicial committee on the India-Pakistan prisoners’ issue, also showed up to bid them goodbye.
The speed with which the Prime Minister’s decision was being implemented was surprising. There was only one thing missing: the Pakistan government had omitted to tell the Indian High Commission in Islamabad in advance about the decision to release the fishermen.
A press release from the Indian High Commission said the decision was communicated to it late in the evening on Tuesday, and a list of those to be released given to it only at half-past noon on Wednesday.
Repatriation is impossible unless Indian authorities confirm that the persons being sent back across the border have been established as Indian nationals through the usual consular access and verification procedures.
Caught by surprise at Pakistan’s sudden “goodwill gesture”, Indian officials communicated to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the release would have to wait until they ticked off the names on the list as those that had been already confirmed as Indian citizens.
When this news reached Landhi jail, there was pandemonium. Ashraff Nizamani, the jail superintendent, announced that the fishermen would have to return to their barracks as the Indian authorities had not made necessary arrangements yet for sending them back home.
The fishermen tried to resist the prison guards, who began herding them back into the barracks, and demanded to be released immediately. There was fisticuffs and it took the prison officials over 30 minutes to bring the situation under control.
An official at the Indian High Commission said work was underway on checking the list, and all efforts were being made to complete the process as quickly as possible, but it was unlikely that it could be completed by Thursday.
The release may now take place only next week, as Pakistan will shut down over a long weekend from December 25, the birth anniversary of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, until Muharram on December 28.