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The resolution of the issue of death sentence awarded to Sarabjit Singh after 15 years in jail in Pakistan may well be a test case in the ongoing peace process.  A report on the spies, prisoners and the peace process 

 Syed Nazakat in New Delhi & Satinder Bains in Chandigarh

 Often life imitates art. In the spectacularly successful movie Veer Zara, an Indian officer is put in a Pakistani jail for 40 years in a story of war, hate, revenge and love. Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf had made an off-the-cuff remark on the unfair nature of the movie when he visited India for the cricket series. Now the president has a chance to prove how fair the Pakistan government is, when he takes a decision whether or not to pardon an Indian convicted to death on alleged spying charges.

 When on August 19 Pakistan’s Supreme Court upheld a death sentence on Manjit Singh alias Sarabjit Singh after 15 years of prosecution for his alleged involvement as a RAW agent in the 1990 Lahore bomb blasts, it created a groundswell of emotion  in India.

 A presidential pardon for Sarabjit Singh will be seen as a great goodwill measure in keeping with the momentum that the peace process has generated. If Musharraf washes his hands off the Supreme Court judgement, then the issue could snowball considering the emotive nature of the issue. No Indian spy or prisoner has been executed in Pakistan though five alleged spies have been sentenced to death. Going by precedent at least there are chances of Sarabjit Singh being pardoned but the issue has become yet another major landmark in the ongoing peace process.

 Sarabjit Singh is the fifth Indian to be awarded a death sentence by a Pakistani court. The death sentence of the other four were commuted on various grounds giving hope that Sarabjit Singh too would be pardoned. Some 117 Indians have been convicted for various offences including spying in Pakistan. The case of Sarabjit Singh however continues to get curiouser by the day. The first is the case of his identity. His family members say that his name is Sarabjit Singh and not Manjit Singh as the Pakistani authorities refer to him. If at all Sarabjit Singh was carrying the fake identity of Manjit Singh, it again gives rise to the suspicion that he was indeed an Indian agent. But RAW and intelligence officials are clear that Manjit Singh was not their man. Since India has officially requested Pakistan to commute his sentence, it suggests that the government could be clean on the issue.

 Pakistan official however say that Sarabjit Singh himself did not contest that identity during the long trial which finally lend to the death penalty. His family members’ statements that he is not a spy cannot convince the Pakistani authorities, since family members are quite unlikely to know the job profile of a spy.

 It has been traumatic time for Sarabjit’s family in Bhikiwind near Amritsar. His youngest daughter obviously has no recollection of her father who strayed into Pakistan in 1990 when she was just a few days old. His eldest daughter Swapandeep Kaur who was just three years old then now says there is no way her father could have been a spy since he was not educated. She points out that in 1990, there was no fencing on the Indo-Pak border and farmers from both sides used to stray into neighbouring territory. 

“If they kill Sarabjit, we will also make five nooses and hang ourselves. The government of India and Pakistan will be responsible for our deaths,” says Sarabjit’s wife Sukhpreet Kaur. “My husband is completely innocent.”

Dalbir Kaur, who along with the wife and family of Sarabjit Singh has threatened to commit suicide is now confident that her brother will be released. “Support to save the life of my brother has come from all quarters. Till a few days back I had never expected that the Indian Prime Minister and parliamentarians would come to Sarabjit’s rescue,” she told Sahara Time. The death sentence and the resultant uproar has also brought into focus the case of 923 civilian prisoners and 54 PoWs, which the Indian government claims are languishing in Pakistani jails. “But Pakistan has acknowledged the presence of only 182 civilian prisoners and does not acknowledge the presence of any other Indian PoW in the country,” Minister of state for external affairs Rao Inderjit Singh told Rajya Sabha on August 4. This issue has been discussed over the years without much effect. The first substantial progress came when Pakistan released 800 Indian fishermen between January and March 2005.

 The families and relatives of these Indian PoWs haven’t yet given up their search for their loved ones who, they believe, are still dying a slow death in Pakistani jails. Their belief was reaffirmed after Rooplal Sahariya, an Indian spy who was released by Pakistan on April 2000, after spending over 26 years in cramped prison cells in Pakistan, surviving a stroke and a death sentence. He told reporters that he saw other Indian prisoners of war in detention in Sialkot, Multan, Sahiwal and Lahore. “There are around 50 such prisoners, called pagal [mad] Indians, most of whom have lost their mental balance due to years of physical torture. Even if their terms have ended, they cannot be sent home because they don’t remember their addresses,” he had said then.

 Onkar Nath Budhwar, another suspected Indian spy from Ferozepur in Punjab who was arrested in Jajjasadu post on the border was also lucky to escape the gallows. In 1972, session judge Syed Mohammed Abbas Shah sentenced him to death. But he was finally released on December 9, 1974 on the orders of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, after he signed the Shimla agreement.

 With the onset of the place process much progress has been made in identifying the prisoners and getting them released. Pakistan has granted consular access to Indian prisoners in January, February, June and July this year. Indian prisoners in Pakistan were allowed to write and receive letters from their families in India. According to the Pakistani media, about 611 Pakistani prisoners are languishing in Indian jails, including 457 who have reportedly completed their prison terms but awaiting release due to delay in Pakistan confirming their status.

During the foreign secretary- level talks held on Dec 27-28, 2004 at Islamabad, it was agreed that immediate notification of the arrested Indian/Pakistani nationals would be provided to the high commissions through the foreign ministries. It was also decided to provide consular access to all the civilian prisoners, including fishermen, held in each other’s country within three months from the date of their arrest and repatriation would be immediate after the completion of sentence and nationality verification. 

 (Sahara Time, September 3, 2005)

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