Four days after Pakistan released 151 Indian prisoners, New Delhi reciprocated the gesture and handed over 37 Pakistani prisoners, including 32 fishermen and two civilians, to authorities at the Wagah border on Friday.
Before his travel to India to participate in the swearing-in ceremony of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, PM Nawaz Sharif had ordered the release of 151 Indian prisoners, including 150 fishermen and one civilian, plus the return of 57 boats.
According to Indian activists, there are, at present, 229 Indian fishermen and about 780 Indian boats in Pakistan’s custody.
Meanwhile, Islamabad has maintained that 484 Pakistani prisoners – 348 civilians and 136 fishermen – still languish in Indian jails. Out of these, 25 civilian prisoners have completed their sentence and await repatriation.
According to civil rights activist Bhim Singh of the Panthers’ Party, there are more than 350 Pakistanis detained in different jails of India.
“The detention of these prisoners has been challenged under the mandate of Article 21 of the Constitution of India, which ordains that no person shall be deprived of his life and liberty without the procedure established by law. The Supreme Court of India, in its several judgments, has held that the procedure has to be fair and must stand the test of the principles of natural justice,” he explained.
The important point to understand is that Article 21 is a fundamental right in the Constitution of India. “It is available to any person irrespective of his nationality or citizenship,” Singh added. Fundamental rights debar the central or a state government from detaining a person without trial beyond a period of two years, he emphatically said.
According to Singh, there are different categories of foreign prisoners in India, mostly citizens of Pakistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir. The detainees, apart from fishermen, also include those who crossed over from the Line of Control (LoC) in the 1990s and allegedly committed violence.
Meanwhile, there are some Pakistani prisoners who entered India with valid passports and visas but overstayed in the country, which is punishable by a maximum five years in prison.
Some prisoners in Indian jails have hearing and speech impairments whose nationalities have not been identified for nearly a decade. Moreover, there are about 30 mentally challenged prisoners languishing in Amritsar jail for several years.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 31st, 2014.