Nirupama Subramanian

It is expected that the President will approve recommendation

ISLAMABAD: Hopes have risen for Sarabjit Singh’s possible release after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced on Saturday that the government is forwarding a recommendation to President Pervez Musharraf to commute all death sentences to life in prison.

Mr. Gilani told the National Assembly that the mass commutation was a tribute to Benazir Bhutto, the late leader of the Pakistan People’s Party who was assassinated in December 2007, and whose birth anniversary fell on Saturday.

“We have asked the Ministry of Interior to send a recommendation to the President to convert the death sentence of prisoners to life in prison,” Mr. Gilani said.

It is expected that the President will approve the recommendation which will benefit as many as 7,000 death row prisoners. Among them are Sarabjit Singh and Karpal Singh, another Indian sentenced to death for spying

The 42-year-old Sarabjit Singh has spent 18 years in prison in Pakistan. He was tried and convicted for a series of bombings in Lahore and other cities in Punjab province in 1990, and sentenced to death.

Karpal Singh is believed to have spent about 14 years behind bars in Pakistan. His case was recently publicised by human rights activist Ansar Burney.

Mr. Burney told The Hindu that it was clear from the Prime Minister’s statement that the commutation would benefit all death row prisoners without exception.

Mr. Burney said that while a life sentence in Pakistan was 25 years, his trust would move the Pakistan Supreme Court to grant Sarabjit a remission, “the same as that available to all death row prisoners,” so that he could be released as early as possible.

Sarabjit’s hanging was fixed for April 1 but it was put off, first by a month and later indefinitely, as New Delhi lobbied the new government against carrying it out and his family pleaded for his life.

The one-time commutation does not mean Pakistan is abolishing the death sentence, the state-owned Associated Press of Pakistan reported. Last week, Human Rights Watch said 7,000 people were on death row in Pakistan, among the highest in the world.

The Pakistan Prime Minister also announced 90 days remission for all prisoners except those convicted of heinous offences. The Pakistan government also observed what would have been Benazir’s 55th birthday by renaming the Islamabad airport after her.