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Seven teenagers among 337 Indian prisoners released

Updated August 24, 2013

KARACHI, Aug 23: Young Kailash Nathobhai, an Indian fisherman, was doing time in the Youthful Offenders Industrial School here on Rakhsha Bandhan so his two sisters couldn’t tie the raakhi around his wrist in person. Still they sent the red threads with golden beads to him by post.

According to Hindu tradition, a brother presents his sisters with a gift after they tie the raakhi. “Since I have no money, returning home after seven months I should myself serve as their present this year,” he said quietly. “Still, I am not going home empty-handed,” said the boy before proudly taking out bracelets and little souvenirs that he had made himself from beads. He learnt the craft at the Youthful Offenders Industrial School.

Mr Nathobhai was one of the seven teenage Indian fishermen being released along with 330 other grown-ups from the Malir district prison on Friday. All the prisoners hail from Gujarat, India.

Pakistan and India regularly release fishermen who are detained after straying into each other’s territorial waters.

Hanif Anwar, another young fisherman, said he also attended classes at the juvenile facility. “I am Muslim and I can read Arabic script. Therefore, I could also read Urdu and was able to follow the lessons in your textbooks,” he said.

Some 26 among the 337 prisoners are Muslims.

Three hundred and thirty-seven prisoners are a lot of people so the authorities at the Malir district prison divided the entire lot into groups of 40 to 45, released one by one to fill up each bus arranged by the Legal Aid Office, headed by retired Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid. The children were in the group that boarded the last bus heading to Lahore from where all the prisoners would be handed over to the Indian authorities at Wagah on Saturday morning.

In one of the earlier groups, Sedi Bheka and his son Gopal Sedi sat on the prison lawn waiting for their turn to be called out. The 26-year-old Sedi was sporting a bright red tilak on his forehead but the father’s forehead was without the red mark. “I am not celebrating my release as only one of my sons is being released along with me today. I have another son, 22-year-old Dilip, in this jail. He also has completed his prison term but is not being released due to some confusion about his name, thanks to the Indian bureaucracy. There is some confusion about his status as an Indian due to this,” he regretted.

The father and sons were on board the fishing boat, Fiza-i-Mustafa Ahmed Nizami, with four others when arrested at sea by Pakistan Coast Guards for crossing the border. “Another family member, my brother, was also with us but he along with two other members of the crew have already been released. So I am hopeful that my other son, Dilip, too, would come back to us, eventually,” he said.

Forty-year-old Jan Mohammad, a Muslim Indian fisherman, sporting bright orange hair said he had done 11 months in prison but it was a comfortable stay. “I can’t complain as I was fed chicken and eggs and very good food in your prison. Was this a prison or a hotel?” he joked. “I didn’t even have any trouble acquiring the henna for dying my hair from here for I would ask some Pakistani prisoner or the other to get me a packet from the shops on their trips to courts for the hearing of their cases,” he said.

Meanwhile, Assistant Superintendent at the Malir district prison Asif Sarfaraz said that the prisoners also receive Indian currency of Rs10 to Rs20 in their letters from India. “Our canteen staff often converts the money for them into Pakistani rupees. By the way they also receive medicine pouches and pictures of their gods in their letters,” he said.

Safdar Hussain, a prison constable, added that the beadwork craft learnt by the prisoners in the jail was also sold outside and it served as earning for the prisoners. When asked if they realised how well the Indian fishermen were treated in Pakistani jails while Pakistani prisoners in Indian jails are treated very harshly and not even given proper food, the constable smiled and shrugged. “That’s the difference between Indian authorities and Pakistani authorities. We are God-fearing Muslims, sister! Besides these people are just poor fishermen and not criminals,” he said.

After the release of 337 prisoners, there are only 97 Indian prisoners left in jail. When Jail Superintendent Shuja Haider was asked if his prison would seem rather empty now, he said that not the entire prison but only its Shaheed Abdul Razzak Barrack, where the Indian prisoners are housed, might seem a bit vacant. “But considering how often these poor fishermen are caught and brought here, the barrack will fill up again within no time,” he remarked.

The prisoners being released were supposed to be 340 in number but according to the Legal Aid Office, one of them, Ramaish Rami Bai, was already repatriated on human grounds due to illness. Another, Dadu Bhai had passed away on July 4 and his body had been handed over to the Indian government back then. And just a day before the release of the prisoners on Friday, one juvenile prisoner, Manoj Kumar Warma, was also stopped from going home, as his status as an Indian national could not be confirmed.