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Editorial
Caught on the wrong side
Death of Indian prisoner in Pak jail highlights absence of mechanism for basic rights to detainees
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The death of an Indian prisoner from Jammu in a Pakistani jail allegedly due to being beaten up by the prison authorities is shocking and needs to be condemned. While the immediate need is for a thorough investigation into the allegations made by a Pakistani lawyer who was eye-witness to the plight of Chambail Singh serving a five year term in a Pakistani jail on espionage charges, the case of which has already been taken up by the Indian government with their Pakistani counterparts, there is also need for long term policies and measures to ensure that such cases are not repeated in future. The Chambail Singh incident is an epitome of a larger picture of inherent biases with Indians in Pakistani jails an echo of which is found in the Indian jails with Pakistani prisoners. Therefore, the need is to bring into focus the question of the overall plight of such prisoners caught in the alien territory, often being cases of inadvertent crossings. In the Chambail Singh case, while he was serving term for espionage activities, his family and the Indian authorities maintain that he was an innocent person who accidentally crossed the borders. Whatever be the case, inhuman treatment meted out to any prisoner is unacceptable. The divergent views on the nature of the deceased prisoner’s crime also brings into focus the manner in which unsuspecting innocents, especially in the border areas on both sides, are co-opted and coerced to be sent across for spying but later disowned by intelligence agencies they were deputed by when they get caught. They either end up rotting in jails or go through the endless misery of playing the double agent and getting nailed either way in the end.

Whatever be the nature of the case and crime, these prisoners on either side are not provided any consular access and it takes years for family members to discover about the fate of their jailed kin, as was also reportedly the case with Chambail Singh. It was only one of the several letters he managed to sneak out of jail that was delivered to his relative’s home in Punjab some months ago which revealed the truth. The case is reflection of denial of not just consular access to these prisoners but also their inaccessibility of the much needed channels of communication with their families. These basic rights of any prisoner must be might while also ensuring their dignity in jails. While Indian and Pakistani prisons over all crave for reforms, the fact remains that despite jail manuals, the jails on both sides of the border follow a reciprocal trend of creating hierarchies of prisoners, Pakistanis on this side and Indians on the other side figuring at the bottom of that hierarchical pyramid. Recall the case of Shehnaz from Mirpur, who inadvertently crossed over to this side, landed in jail and was raped during her incarceration. There was also a case of two minor Pakistani boys, aged 9 and 10 respectively, lodged in Kot Bhalwal jail about a decade ago with hardcore criminals even as the courts had quashed their detention. Similarly, Indian prisoners who return from Pakistani jails after serving their terms have also talked of having harrowing experience and harassment owing to the national identities. This assertion has also been well documented in Kashmiri separatist leader Anjum Zamrooda Habib’s autobiographical account of her five years in Tihar jail ‘Prisoner No. 100’, where she gives a detailed account of the best of treatment meted out to the British and American prisoners, whose embassies routinely monitor their well being and condition, the minorities within India receiving a much harsher treatment and Pakistanis and Kashmiris being meted out the worst treatment. The book highlights that while all other foreigner prisoners in India enjoy a consular access, there is none in place for Pakistani prisoners. The situation is exactly the same in Pakistani jails as well and that accounts for the several missing persons, who are feared to have crossed the borders from either sides but there is no information about them being lodged in any jail.

Despite several bilateral rounds of talks between India and Pakistan, the two governments have been unable to set into process a regular exchange of list of prisoners and beginning a process of providing them the basic consular access and access to some channel of communication with their families. The present case underlines the need and immediacy to begin a fresh and serious exercise to this end. Also, both the establishments need to impress upon their various intelligence network to minimise this practice of involving innocent citizens in the shoddy deals of espionage, and mutual understanding and agreements can aid this process. Chambail Singh’s death is tragic but let it evoke an awakening in Islamabad and New Delhi.


News Updated at : Tuesday, January 29, 2013
 
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