ISLAMABAD, June 26: Indian prisoner Surjeet Singh is to be released after spending 27 years in jail in Pakistan on spying charges.
There is confusion in Islamabad about the name of the prisoner — Surjeet or Sarabjeet. Over the years all reports about the case have named him as Sarabjeet, but Law Minister Farooq H. Naek insisted on Tuesday that the prisoner being released was Surjeet Singh, son of Sucha Singh.
Mr Naek told Dawn that he had asked the ministry of interior that “Surjeet Singh must be set to liberty forthwith and return to India since he has already completed his sentence.”
Surjeet Singh was languishing in Central Jail, Lahore.
“He (Surjeet Singh) deserves to be released since his death sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment by the president and which had also been accepted and concurred by the army, and since he has already completed his sentence,” Mr Naek quoted from the advice he had sent to the interior ministry.
According to the law minister, Surjeet Singh would have to be released immediately otherwise his confinement would be considered ‘illegal’.
Giving a brief background, Mr Naek said that Surjeet Singh had been tried and sentenced to death under the Pakistan Army Act, 1962, on October 31, 1985, on spying charges and his mercy petition was rejected by the then army chief and president Gen Ziaul Haq.
Soon after taking over the government, then prime minister Benazir Bhutto declared on December 8, 1988, a general amnesty for all condemned prisoners in the country and advised president Ghulam Ishaq Khan to convert the death sentences to life imprisonment.
At that time, a legal question was raised whether the sentences given under the Pakistan Army Act could be commuted to life term. But in July 1989, Mr Naek said, the army also agreed on commuting the death penalty of Surjeet Singh to life imprisonment.
When contacted, Presidency’s spokesman Farhatullah Babar denied reports that Singh had been pardoned by President Asif Ali Zardari. In fact, he said, the president had nothing to do with it.
“All I know is that the Indian prisoner had completed his life term in October 2010 and that the law ministry has directed the interior ministry to set him free and hand him over to India. He said Singh would most possibly be released next week following clearance by the interior ministry.
The release order of Surjeet Singh has been issued two months after the release of ailing Pakistani virologist Khalil Chishti, who had been in an Indian jail on murder charges since 1992, on the orders of Indian Supreme Court on humanitarian grounds.
However, the Pakistan government says that Singh’s release is not a reciprocal act and he is being released on legal grounds.