The Supreme Court of India's decision asking the central government immediately to release and deport 16 Pakistani prisoners who have completed their sentence is a welcome step in civilising official conduct towards the hundreds of cross-border prisoners languishing in Indian jails. Hopefully, the Pakistani judiciary led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary will take a similar stand towards Indian prisoners in jails in that country. The bench rightly rejected the government's argument that these men could be set free only if Pakistan released an equal number of Indian prisoners. ‘Reciprocity' in this case is shameful: it means using people as pawns in diplomacy towards the other. It is no secret that Pakistan follows the same policy, with identical arguments heard in Pakistani courts. Both countries get away with it because the people who end up in jails on the other side tend to be poor and have little means to have their rights enforced. Many are subsistence fishermen struggling in the unmarked waters around Sir Creek. Others are jailed for alleged offences ranging from crossing the border to drug trafficking, from spying to visa infringement. Few among them pose any real danger to the country where they were arrested. Sometimes years can pass before the prisoner's government gets to know about his arrest by the other side. The two sides even wrangle over granting consular access, which means allowing a diplomatic representative to visit the prisoner to verify his nationality and well-being. Prisoners who have served out their sentence need to wait for months or even years to be released because New Delhi and Islamabad use them as bargaining chips, often waiting for symbolic occasions to free them. There are instances of prisoners losing their mental balance by the time of release. The swift release of a Pakistani child from an Indian prison last month was an exception and owes much to a campaign by the Indian media.

The shabby attitude towards prisoners is in contrast to the bonhomie that exists between the elites of the two countries. When diplomats from the two sides meet, they are admirably pleasant with each other even at tense moments. Retired military and intelligence officers meet and exchange niceties across Track 2 tables. But the two countries seem incapable of decent behaviour when it comes to dealing with prisoners. In 2008, a bilateral committee of retired judges, mandated by the governments, visited jails in India and Pakistan and made excellent recommendations for the early release of these prisoners. The Mumbai terror strikes put paid to all that. Holding the fate of hundreds of prisoners ransom to the complicated Indo-Pakistan relationship is morally abhorrent, inhumane, and politically unacceptable.

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