Such a long wait

Sarabjit's predicament points to a shared tragedy on both sides of the border

With Sarabjit Singh battling for life in a Lahore hospital after he was attacked by prisoners in Kot Lakhpat Jail, sections of the political class and electronic media have used the opportunity to raise the pitch against Pakistan, howling for diplomatic costs to the country. They might as well be talking to shadows. With the poll process under way in Pakistan, there is no government in place, no political dispensation to target or blame. Moreover, Sarabjit's predicament is symptomatic of a shared failure that has endured through successive regimes in both countries. He is one of several hundred prisoners who have languished for decades on the wrong side of the border, seemingly outside the pale of due process, often held hostage to the vagaries of bilateral ties.

Convicted for his alleged role in bomb blasts in Pakistan in 1990, Sarabjit has spent 21 years on death row. In 2008, his execution was stayed indefinitely by President Zardari. And in 2012, there was talk of releasing him in exchange for Pakistani prisoner Khalil Chishty, imprisoned in Ajmer since 1992. Chishty was released in the cloud of bonhomie that followed Zardari's visit to India in April last year. Sarabjit remained in prison, and after the executions of Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru, chances of his return became bleak. Far too often, the fate of such prisoners has been guided by matters of high diplomacy or subject to the grand political gesture, instead of being the outcome of a proper judicial process.

In January 2012, Pakistan released 180 Indian prisoners, mostly fishermen, as a "New Year's gift". Most of the prisoners marooned on either side, however, wait for repatriation years after they have finished serving out their sentences, tangled in bureaucratic hurdles. Some lack the papers to prove their nationality, and are forced to remain in exile as the government of their native country refuses to claim them. To be sure, a distinction must be made between prisoners jailed on serious terror charges and ordinary prisoners, including fishermen who had unwittingly strayed across the border. In the case of ordinary prisoners, the two countries must exchange information on arrests, ensure them consular access and help them establish their nationalities. Even those held on terror charges, like Sarabjit, deserve a quicker, more transparent justice.

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