A case of mistaken identity turned what should have been a moving occasion into international embarrassment on Tuesday.
What was to be the overdue release of an Indian national named Sarjeet Singh, who had been in Pakistani custody for over 30 years serving life imprisonment, was reported as the release of notorious Indian spy Sarabjeet Singh, who has also been in jail in Pakistan for over two decades.
Sarabjeet was sentenced to death by an anti-terrorism court for his involvement in a string of deadly bombings in Punjab in the ’80s and beginning of the ’90s. All pleas for clemency have thus far been rejected in Sarabjeet’s case – which has been taken up by not only the Indian government but by rights activists on humanitarian grounds. After the rejection of several mercy petitions in the past, he moved a fresh plea with President Zardari. His fifth and final petition carried the signatures of 100,000 Indians.
The news of the convicted spy’s release expectedly sparked off congratulatory reactions on both sides of the border – including by his family. However, it later turned out that the man being released was Sarjeet, not Sarabjeet, Singh – which was clarified close to midnight. It is unclear how the mix-up took place – whether it was official quarters whose information was mistaken or if the reporting by the media was the guilty party.
Who is Sarjeet
Farhatullah Babar told The Express Tribune that the office of the President had no role in the release of Sarjeet. He recalled that the death sentence awarded to him by a military court in October 1985 had already been commuted into life imprisonment in 1989.
Babar said then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, on the advice of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, had commuted Sarjeet Singh’s sentence into life imprisonment. “In the first tenure of Benazir Bhutto, all the capital sentences given by the military courts were commuted to life imprisonment,” he said adding that it was part of a general amnesty.
According to him, the law ministry has sent a summary to the interior ministry for the release of Sarjeet Singh, who had already completed his term in prison. “He has already completed 22 years. He cannot be kept in jail anymore,” Babar said.
He will be released following clearance from the interior ministry. Under the procedure, the interior ministry will inform the foreign office to contact the Indian authorities through diplomatic channels for a date of release. It is expected that Singh can be repatriated in the next few days once the foreign ministries of the two countries complete the documentation process.
“I once again want to clarify that President Zardari has no role in commuting the sentence of Sarjeet Singh” he reiterated.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 27th, 2012.
Correction: Earlier, the word “summary” was misspelled in the story. The error has been rectified.