The Supreme Court must be thanked for finally allowing Khaleel Chisty to return to Pakistan. The 80-year-old Pakistani was convicted last year in a murder case in Ajmer and sentenced to life imprisonment. A man had succumbed to gun shot wounds received in a clash between two sets of Mr. Chisty's relatives in 1992. The trial court, which took nearly 20 years to decide the case, was not convinced by his plea that he was only a bystander and played no part in the violence. For the two decades that it took to decide the case, he was confined to Ajmer. After the conviction, the Rajasthan High Court refused his plea for suspension of the sentence, even while granting identical appeals of three other Indian men convicted in the case. For a whole year, his family and rights activists pleaded for his release and return to Pakistan and requested the Rajasthan Governor to consider a pardon. Keeping an ill and infirm octogenarian in prison militated against the commitment by both India and Pakistan to treat their cross-border prisoners humanely, but the pleas fell on deaf ears. Perhaps what was most inhumane was that Governor Shivraj Patil, showing the same indecisiveness that he displayed during his time as Home Minister, sat on the case for all this time, even ignoring an impassioned personal appeal from Justice Markandey Katju. Then still at the Supreme Court, Mr. Katju asked that Dr. Chisty be released on humanitarian grounds. His plea found a sympathetic echo in the Prime Minister's Office. But all to no avail.
President Asif Ali Zardari raised the issue during his visit to India in April. The first ray of hope came when the Supreme Court granted him bail last month while admitting his petition challenging the conviction; in allowing him to return to his hometown of Karachi on a separate petition, the court has made it clear that it was taking into account the “special circumstances” of the case. The government had opposed his return to Pakistan, but as the court observed during the hearings, they were dealing here not with a terrorist or someone with a criminal record but a qualified virologist. To be sure, the court also imposed certain conditions, including that his passport be held by the Indian mission in Pakistan, and that he must return in November when it will start hearing the petition on his conviction. But the judges have shown that even while adhering to legalities there is always room in civilized jurisprudence for a humane approach. Indeed, both in India and Pakistan, the judiciary has shown far more wisdom and humanity in dealing with the prisoner issue than the bureaucracy or the political leadership.