Midnight clarification comes after faux pas and animated talk shows in both countries

Five hours after the ‘Sarabjit Singh story’ hogged headlines and talk shows in both India and Pakistan, the Presidency said late on Tuesday night that it was not him but the much older Surjeet Singh whom Pakistan had decided to release.

The clarification came close to midnight (local time) amid growing criticism from right-wing organisations and in the media about the commutation of the death sentence of Sarabjit Singh, who had been arrested and convicted in 1991 for terror attacks in Faislabad and Lahore.

By this time, practically every prime time talk show had led with discussions on Sarabjit Singh whom a couple of anchorpersons compared to Ajmal Kasab, the lone terrorist nabbed alive in the Mumbai terror attacks case.

According to Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar, the person concerned is not Sarabjit Singh but Surjeet Singh, son of Sucha Singh. His death sentence was commuted in 1989 by the then President, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, on the advice of the Prime Minister of the day, Benazir Bhutto.

“Law Minister Farooq Naek today [on Tuesday] conveyed to [the] Interior Minister that Surjeet Singh has completed his life term in jail and ought to be released and sent back to India. Keeping him in jail any longer will be illegal confinement,” Mr. Babar said in a detailed text message sent out to all media personnel covering the Presidency.

The Presidency also sought to distance itself from the decision, with Mr. Babar adding that any reference to President Asif Ali Zardari in the decision was out of context. By the time the clarification came, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the Jamaat-ud-Da’wah (JuD) condemned the President for the decision to release Sarabjit Singh, describing the move as shameful.

The JI Ameer, Syed Munawar Hasan, also pointed out that Kasab had been sentenced by India without any evidence, and Pakistan had not provided him legal aid. In a Twitter message, the JuD said: “Not a single demand for Samjhota terrorists & innocent Pakistanis in Indian jails, instead convicted terrorist Sarabjit allowed to live. Shame.”

According to Surjeet Singh’s lawyer Awais Sheikh, he was captured from near the India-Pakistan border in 1981 during the Zia-ul Haq regime. He was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment, and his jail term ended in 2004. Surjeet Singh — a resident of Ferozepur — is now lodged in Punjab’s Kot Lakpat Jail, where Sarajbit Singh is also an inmate.

Earlier this year, the Punjab government informed the Lahore High Court that Surjeet Singh had completed his term and would be released. The court intervened in the matter after Mr. Sheikh – who also represents Sarabjit Singh and had filed a mercy petition on his behalf last month – moved the court for his release on the grounds that he had completed his term but was still languishing in prison seven years later.