The organizations of South Asia and beyond also demanded releasing prisoners on completion of jail term.
Over 30 organizations around South Asia and beyond have endorsed a joint statement about cross-border prisoners initiated and coordinated by the South Asia Peace Action 9SAPAN) Network, calling for the humane treatment of cross-border prisoners and to decriminalize inadvertent illegal border crossings.
Titled ‘Release prisoners on completion of jail term, decriminalize inadvertent border crossings, especially for fisherfolk and minors‘, the statement draws attention to the death of two Indian fisherfolk in Pakistani custody this year, and the death of a Pakistani fisherman of Bengali origin in India’s custody last year.
All three had served their sentences but remained in custody on ‘the other side’. Compounding the tragedy, there are terrible delays in the repatriation of the bodies of such fisherfolk, notes the statement.
The statement also draws attention to some teenagers who remain incarcerated in juvenile centers in India, mostly without any contact with their families. One has already served his sentence but remains incarcerated.
Kalu Vira, a fisherman from India incarcerated in Pakistan died at a hospital in Karachi on 6 July 2022. He had completed his jail term in December 2021, and his nationality had been verified.
After his passing, it took over 10 days for the Pakistan authorities to inform the Indian High Commission about the death.
As of 31 July, Kalu Vira’s mortal remains are yet to be repatriated. Meanwhile his family members came to learn of the tragedy through other means and are desperately awaiting the return of his mortal remains.
This is not the first time a fisherman has died while incarcerated on ‘the other side’. It typically takes well over a month to repatriate mortal remains of an Indian or a Pakistani who dies while incarcerated in the other country. The repatriation is carried out through Wagah border although most such incarcerations are in the southern coastal areas.
Nano Ram, another Indian fisherman, completed his jail sentence in Pakistan on 16 January 2019. He died at a cardiovascular hospital in Karachi on 3 February 2022. His remains were repatriated on 4 April 2022.
Amir Hamza, a Bengali migrant fisherman from Karachi arrested by the Indian Coast Guards in 2017 died of Covid-19 in India in June 2021. It took the authorities three months to repatriate his body to Pakistan. He, too, had completed his prison sentence but was kept languishing in custody.
When fisherfolk cross the unmarked maritime borders in the region, lengthy incarceration is just one of the risks they face. Currently, Pakistan holds 632 Indian fishermen in Landhi Jail, Karachi, while India holds 95 Pakistani fishermen in prisons in Gujarat. All were arrested for inadvertently crossing the maritime boundary.
Even after serving their jail sentences, they end up remaining in prison. Had Kalu, Manu and Hamza been repatriated promptly after having completed their sentences they might have been alive today.
We note that Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi fisherfolk arrested by India and vice versa also face similar issues.
In some cases, border patrol personnel on the other side have shot dead fisherfolk caught transgressing the unmarked maritime border. This happens between Pakistan and India, and also between Bangladesh and India.
Additionally, several minors who inadvertently crossed the border across the Line of Control in the disputed area of Kashmir, are lodged in reformatory centers on the other side. In some cases, they are repatriated within days, once their identities are verified and contact is made with families across the border.
Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi fisherfolk arrested by India and vice versa also face similar issues. In the case of Sri Lanka and India, there are generally fairly fast repatriations, sometimes within weeks of arrest, including boats being returned.
We call on the governments of the region to immediately take following steps:
Release and repatriate prisoners of each other’s country as soon as they have completed their prison sentences, particularly aged prisoners, women prisoners and civilian prisoners with minor offences. Promptly return any fishing boats that are confiscated.
Revive the India-Pakistan Joint Judicial Committee on Prisoners and allow medical teams of the other country to periodically visit and conduct inspections. Institute similar bilateral committees between India-Sri Lanka, and India-Bangladesh.
Allow consular access to cross-border prisoners and communication between them and their relatives, including the option of online communication.
Allow those who are jailed in or who die in Sindh and Gujarat to be repatriated through the sea route or Khokhrapar border rather than having to travel 1000 km up-country to Wagah-Atari border, and down again to their homes; Decriminalize inadvertent border crossings; All countries of the region must institute measures to ameliorate the plight of the incarcerated in their custody, particularly cross-border prisoners. This will also help build confidence and trust between the two countries and improve overall neighborly relations in the South Asian region.
The following organizations have endorsed the statement:
Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum
National Fishworkers Forum, India
National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, Sri Lanka
Aman Ki Asha
Centre for Social Justice – Pakistan
Confederation of Voluntary Associations, COVA – India
Haqooq Khalq Party Pakistan
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) – India
Nijera Kori – Bangladesh
Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee
People’s Watch – India
People for Peace and Change – India, Pakistan
Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, PIPFPD
Peace and Development Organization – Pakistan
Pakistan Institute of Labor and Education Research, PILER
People’s Union For Civil Liberties, India
South Asia Peace Action Network
South Asia Partnership-Pakistan
South Asia Citizens Web
Boston South Asian Coalition
Sangat – South Asia
American Alliance of Physicians for Peace in South Asia
International Solidarity for Academic Freedom in India
Uks Research Centre – Pakistan
Anna’s Tuin en Ruigte, Amsterdam
Bebaak Collective – India
Driksakshi – India
Courtesy: South Asia Peace Action Network