A ceaseless plight

Hundreds of fishermen have been languishing in Pakistan’s prisons for years with no end in sight

Updated - April 28, 2021 01:31 am IST

Published - April 28, 2021 12:15 am IST

Arrested Indian fishermen sit in a police lockup in Karachi on November 18, 2018.

Arrested Indian fishermen sit in a police lockup in Karachi on November 18, 2018.

Ramesh Taba Sosa, an Indian fisherman, is the latest victim of an inhuman and skewed system involving India and Pakistan, in which mortal remains of prisoners are not repatriated for months. Sosa died in a prison hospital in Malir Jail, Karachi, Pakistan, on March 26, 2021, but there is no guarantee when his family in Nanavada, near Kodinar in Gujarat, will be able to conduct his last rites.

Sosa was arrested in May 2019 when the fishing boat he was in allegedly entered Pakistani waters. His sentence in the Pakistani prison ended on July 3, 2019. However, not only was he not repatriated, but he was also not given consular access till his death. Sosa’s case is one more statistic in a long story of insensitivity between the two governments that do not implement agreements. More than anything else, it is an issue of basic human rights.

Also read | Pakistan apprehends Indian fishermen off Gujarat

India and Pakistan signed the Agreement on Consular Access in 2008 . Though the deal has a few lacunae, it was significant. Section 4 of the agreement said, “Each government shall provide consular access within three months to nationals of one country, under arrest, detention or imprisonment in the other country.” Further, Section 5 of the agreement stated, “Both governments agree to release and repatriate persons within one month of confirmation of their national status and completion of sentences.”

A long wait

More than 300 Indian fishermen remain in Pakistan’s custody in Malir jail. Consular access is an exception. Without it, the nationality of the person is not confirmed and the repatriation process cannot begin. Though the agreement does not state a time limit, there are numerous instances in which both countries have not confirmed nationality for as long as 18 months, during which the arrested men languish in jails.

Sosa’s case has many precedents. A shocking case is of Vaaga Chauhan, an Indian fisherman, who died in custody in December 2015. His mortal remains reached his village in Gujarat only in April 2016. Chauhan’s family went through unimaginable trauma and reached out to every resource for help.

Also read | ‘They don’t know when they cross the border’

Then, there is Latif Qasim Sama’s case. Hailing from a village in Kutch near the International Border, he inadvertently crossed over to Pakistan in 2018. He was arrested and his sentence ended in April 2019. Latif still does not have consular access. His relative, Ismail Sama, returned from a Pakistan jail in January this year, though his sentence ended in 2016. Sama and Latif are not fishermen, they live near the International Border and inadvertently crossed it. Ismail returned home after 13 years. Worse, his family was informed a decade after his arrest.

Fishermen from the Saurashtra region of Gujarat often get arrested when they unintentionally cross over into Pakistani waters. They suffer, and so do their families, who are now even more worried because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sluggish mechanisms

Ideally, prisoners should be released and repatriated the day they complete their prison sentence. But this has happened in just one case, with Hamid Ansari, the only person who was released and repatriated on the day of completion of their sentence. Dharam Singh from Kashmir, who had unknowingly crossed over in 2003, spent 18 years in a Pakistani prison. He was eventually sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment, which ended in December last year. But he reached home only this month.

In 2007, India and Pakistan set up a joint judicial committee on prisoners comprising four retired judges from each side. The committee used to convene twice a year to meet prisoners. It made unanimous recommendations, including on the release and repatriation of fishermen and women prisoners. Its last meeting was held in 2013, after which it was discontinued. In 2018, efforts were made to revive it, but Pakistan is yet to nominate judges or call for a meeting. The delay is costing lives.

Jatin Desai is with the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy

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