Twenty-seven years ago, Gopal Dass, a native of Punjab, strayed into Pakistan and has been there since, imprisoned under the Pakistan Official Secrets Act. Sentenced to life, Dass continues to languish, another name among the nameless who wander and get caught on either side of the border. These people are trapped in the bureaucratic apathy of the two nations who do little to free innocent citizens from the other side of the fence. Meanwhile their families, usually poor and illiterate, spend years knocking at several doors to free them. Save for individual efforts and organisations in both countries who have committed themselves to speaking up for them, help has taken a long time to reach the victims, at times too late.
“We cannot give any directions to Pakistan authorities because we have no jurisdiction over them. However, that does not prevent us from making a request to the Pakistani authorities to consider the appeal of the petitioner (Gopal Dass) for releasing him on humanitarian grounds by remitting the remaining part of his sentence. We think it appropriate to make an appeal on humanitarian grounds to the Pakistan authorities to release the petitioner as he has served almost 27 years in jail,” the bench of Justice Markandey Katju and Justice Gyansudha Mishra observed. Referring to a civil society delegation from Pakistan that sought release of Pakistanis in Indian jails, the court said, “there is a humanitarian spirit on both sides, which we applaud”.
A final judgement is awaited, but in the interim, the observation made by the apex court has struck a chord with former judges in Pakistan, who have praised the order for striking the right emotive chord across the border.
The apex court’s order of 2010 said, “As regards the prisoners/foreigners who had been detained and who have completed their sentence and their nationality has been determined and has been accepted by the country of their origin, they shall be deported forthwith to their country. Regarding prisoners who have completed their sentence but whose nationality has not yet been determined, we direct the concerned ministry to determine their nationality as soon as possible so that appropriate orders can be passed.”
In the case of Dass, the matter is complicated in that, not only is there a confusion over the status of his sentence, that is, whether he has been set a prison term for life or for 25 years, the authority of the court does not extend to a foreign country. Hence the emotional appeal.
Haider has moved a similar petition seeking the release of Indian prisoners in Pakistan. “Close to 442 Indian prisoners were released under the order of the Pakistan Supreme Court and we are now struggling for the release of 128 more prisoners in the jails of Sindh. There is no reason to keep them after they have served their sentences,” says Haider. A delegation of civil society members from India is also visiting Pakistan to take up this issue.
Former Pakistan Supreme Court judge Nazir Aslam Zahid says this is the best order to have come out of the courts in a long time. “For the highest court of India to make a request to another country, even though its jurisdiction is limited, I think is a positive step. Also, it is heartwarming to hear the Supreme Court of India appreciating our efforts too. As this is an exceptional case, the order sets a good precedent. I will take it up with the government of Pakistan,” says Zahid.
Jatin Desai, a research associate at Focus on the Global South, says, “The committee should meet regularly. Among others, poor fishermen of India and Pakistan continue to be victims of the hostile bilateral political relationship. They stray unwittingly into each other’s territorial waters and are arrested and given jail terms. To get them out becomes a difficult task even though many complete their sentences.”
Everyone agrees that the order has a persuasive value. Setting Dass free will take time and may not happen soon, despite his 27 years in jail. But how far the recent order stirs the conscience of the two countries to act, specially in the context of several other illiterate prisoners who remain trapped in no man’s land, remains to be seen.
Why not include Indian POWs in this case of 1965 and 1971 wars held in pak jails? Ijdnia released 90,000 Pak POWs immediately after the war what did Pak do except kill thousands of Indians in name of kashmir and jihad till today?
It is absolutely illegal to hold Gopal Dass in custody even for one day. Pakistan must release him forthwith.
It is unfortunate, that the crap 'judicial' system of our country gets an image-makeover with news such as this.
Why do journalists not carry the news about delayed justice, corrupt judges and miscarried 'justice' that we are supposed to get 'used' to?
Btw, If you notice, all these POWs are males. And hence, this could be justifiably called a male-rights issue, since there are no womens organisations going to fight for their cause.
God alone knows what dodgy, low-level intelligence Gopal Dass may have secured for us 27 years ago. India and Pakistan have so many complex issues to resolve, some compassion can at least be shown to the foot-soldiers who get caught in the maze of this sterile stand-off.
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