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Blight Of The Borders

Sarabjit Singh, long-time Indian prisoner, is murdered in a Lahore jail. Pak in damage control mode.

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Blight Of The Borders
AFP (From Outlook 13 May 2013)
Blight Of The Borders

Crossing Borders

  • August 1990: Sarabjit Singh, arrested for illegally entering Pakistan, subsequently charged with the death of 14 people in the Lahore-Faisalabad serial bomb blasts
  • October 1991: Charged with being an Indian spy and sentenced to death. The sentence is upheld by a higher court.
  • March 2006: Pakistan SC rejects his mercy petition and upholds the death sentence
  • March 2008: Sarabjit’s fresh mercy plea turned down by Pak President Pervez Musharraf, but execution delayed following appeal from his family
  • December 2009: Jas Uppal, a British lawyer, launches an international campaign to get Sarabjit released
  • May 2012: Sarabjit files his fifth appea for clemency before Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
  • June 2012: Zardari commutes his death sentence to life and some news reports suggest he may be released as part of an Indo-Pak prisoner swap. An Indian prisoner is released, but Sarabjit remains in jail.
  • August 2012: Sarabjit files another appeal for mercy before Zardari.
  • April 10, 2013: Through his lawyer, Sarabjit tells Pakistani authorities that his life is in danger from fellow prisoners.
  • April 26, 2013: He is severely injured after being attacked with bricks and rods by jail inmates, admitted to intensive care in a Lahore hospital.
  • April 27: His family pleads for his transfer to India for treatment but the Pakistan authorities refuse to move him.
  • May 2, 2013: Sarabjit succumbs, sparks off strong protests against Pak authorities for not providing him enough security 


In the movies, spies like 007 almost never get caught. The reality, though, is quite different. And the universal rule, if you get caught or your cover is blown, is that you are on your own from that point on. Your intellige­nce outfit will never own up to sending you or claim you as one of their own.

However, in civilised societies, the manner in which alleged Indian spy and death row prisoner Sarabjit Singh met his untimely death also does not pass for normal. Hospitalised after a brutal attack in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail, he was pronounced dead of a massive heart attack by doctors early on Thursday morning.

It was touch and go for many years on his sentence being carried out, though the Asif Ali Zardari government had for the past five years been commuting death-by-hanging sentences to life. Indeed, there had been much diplom­atic-level exchanges on even a possible release. The last time rumours circulated that Sarabjit was going to be set free, some high-profile prisoners in India’s Tihar jail were hanged, setting the hawks here screeching and weakening the hands of President Zardari.

Go back to June 2012 at the Wagah border where on his way home was Surjeet Singh, an Indian death row prisoner who had served 27 years for spying and related charges in Pakistani jails. Sentenced to death, Zardari had in 2012 in a  “goodwill gesture” released him. But Surjeet,  highlighting the fate of the several Indian spies languishing in prisons here, shouted out in chaste Punjabi as soon as he crossed over to India, “I went to Pakistan to spy and I am going to sue RAW for abandoning me. Sarabjit is well and in good health and he roams freely inside jail.” The hawks in Pakistan were soon baying for the blood of other jailed Indian ‘spies’ including Sarabjit, 49, charged formally in the 1990 Lahore-Faisalabad blasts case which had killed 14 Pakistanis.

Sarabjit’s body leaving a Lahore mortuary

Now, less than a year later, in a rare case of extreme negligence and brutality, solitary prisoner Sarabjit, out in the jail grounds for some fresh air, is attacked with iron rods and bricks, skull smashed beyond repair, resulting in him sinking into a deep coma till his heart gave in six days later.

That this happened in a high-security prison to an extremely high-profile inm­ate and the fact that his Pakistani attackers—also on death row—were ‘allowed’ to get away with the crime is unbelievable. Usual excuses of an overcrowded jail and dangerous inma­tes have been put out, but there were ample warnings both by Sarabjit (in letters to his family) and by his lawyer Owais Sheikh to jail aut­h­orities that after the hanging of Indian Parliament attack accused Afzal Guru in Delhi, his life was in danger. It was alm­ost as if the authorities wanted this to happen and were too scared of the ‘for­ces’ at play who had planned the attack. What else can explain this apathy?

And what about the concerns expr­essed by the Indian high commission? In typical bureaucratic mode, there is no record of any demarche being made. High commissioner Sharat Sab­h­arwal had apparently decided to “swing by” the hospital to see Sarabjit on the morning he passed away. He had been invited by the Staff College to address them.

On Tuesday, the Indian high commissioner had met with Pakistan foreign secretary Jalil A. Jillani, in a meeting which had already been requested bef­ore the Sarabjit attack. This in itself shows the high commission’s apathy—  that all these days it had not asked for an exclusive meeting on Sarabjit or for a demand of the post-mortem report of Chamel Singh, who it has suddenly again remembered. (Chamel Singh, a J&K native in Pakistani jail since 2008, had died  under mysterious circumstan­ces in late January. There were allegations that he had been beaten up by the jail staff and, amid much outrage, a post-mortem report was ordered.)

Meanwhile, speaking to Outlook, ex-foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar said she was outraged at the caretaker government for dragging its feet. “If it was the PPP government, we would have moved very quickly and even before a request could come forth we would have made arrangements to fly Sarabjit out to a place of the family’s choosing simply on humanitarian grounds. Sarabjit was a human does not matter that he is an Indian. I would have put all legalities aside and ordered my foreign secretary to release and fly him out. Though the Pakistan state is not responsible for what happened to him...we could have helped under the circumstances,” said Khar, who was briefly in Islamabad.

To its credit, after the attack, Pakistan had moved quickly on the diplomatic front. After the security establishment’s initial dragging of feet on giving consular access, it granted visas to Sarabjit’s immediate family and, later, in an “unprecedented” move, gave full consular access to Indian diplomats and allowed the Joint Judicial Committee of Prisoners to visit Sarabjit.

Meanwhile, the Punjab government in Pakistan has ordered a judicial enquiry into the incident. Initially, a case of attempt to murder had been registered against two prisoners, Amer Aftab and Mudassar, after a com­plaint by Kot Lakhpath assistant jail superintendent Ishtiaq Ahmed Gill. But that charge has since been bumped up to murder.

In the midst of electioneering, the attack did not go unnoticed, with newspapers commenting of the “condition of prisons in South Asia” and the need to provide maximum security to prisoners like Sarabjit. One of the politicians who spoke out strongly was JUI(F) leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman. “It is a matter of regret that Sarabjit was attacked. He was due to be hanged but someone subjected him to another punishment. Jail inmates are the government’s res­p­onsibility so I hope the government will inquire and punish those responsible for this lapse,” he told Reuters.

With relations between the two nuc­lear-armed neighbours already at a low after the LoC skirmishes, diplomatic sou­r­ces say Pakistan should have been on its toes—in fact, anticipating that a high- profile case such as Sarabjit’s or any other negative move would darken the mood further in Delhi. Which is why the Pakistan Human Rights Commission took it upon itself to send a warning to both the governments, in Islamabad and Lahore, on how such incidents can have an adverse effect on bilateral relations.

It doesn’t help that in cases like Sara­b­jit’s, a human approach is lacking on both sides of the border. Not that there is much respect for their own citizens, but the ‘enemy’ prisoner especially has a hard time. Again, it’s like both countries have simply forgotten their own. For the future, in Pakistan at least, all eyes are on a report from the Joint Judicial Com­m­ittee who have met with Indian prisoners here, and its recommendations.

By Mariana Baabar in Islamabad

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