There is simply no excuse for what happened to Sarabjit Singh in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail. The death row prisoner was in judicial custody, and Pakistani jail officials were duty bound to ensure his safety, as of every other prisoner in their charge. In Sarabjit’s case, they were also aware of specific threats to his life. Jihadi outfits had pledged to avenge the hanging of Ajmal Kasab, and later of Afzal Guru, and Sarabjit’s lawyer had petitioned the jail and the Punjab government for more security to his client. Condemned prisoners are locked up in individual cells. Going by reports, he was assaulted by two other inmates with bricks, rods, and sharp-edged utensils during his daily walk in the jail compound. The intention was to kill him. Even if not directly involved, the jail’s officials must be held responsible for dereliction. Just three months ago, another Indian prisoner, Chamel Singh, was brutally murdered in Kot Lakhpat. It is not known if any prisoner was charged for that killing, or if any officials were taken to task. But clearly, no one in authority was shaken enough to bring in measures to prevent such attacks from happening again. That would have emboldened Sarabjit’s attackers.

If this murderous attack does not awaken both Pakistan and India to the shabby treatment they mete out to each other’s nationals in their jails, nothing can. Sarabjit was convicted for carrying out four bomb attacks in Lahore and Faisalabad in 1990 that killed 14 people and left 80 wounded, over his protestations that he was a victim of mistaken identity. Despite the opposition in Pakistan to the release of a terror convict, there was a time in 2008 when the newly elected Pakistan People’s Party government seriously considered this — it indefinitely put off his hanging — as a goodwill gesture towards India. This though is the real problem. Whether it is Sarabjit, or the other Indians and Pakistanis locked up in each other’s jails for far less — overstaying, fishing in each other’s waters — their fate gets enmeshed in the larger bilateral relationship. Prisoners, most of them poor and marginal in their own countries, are treated like bargaining chips, to be released only if goodwill needs to be shown to the other side, long after sentence completion. Not surprisingly, the recommendations of a commission comprising judges from both countries for quick release and repatriation of prisoners charged with minor offences have been implemented only in fits and starts. In turn, sometimes a single prisoner’s case, such as Sarabjit’s or Khalil Chishti’s, haunts relations. The first step out of this is for both countries to start treating each other’s nationals lodged in their jails as human beings instead of pawns.

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