SAUDI Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is set to arrive in Pakistan tomorrow. The visit will play an important role in strengthening the two countries’ economic ties, with MBS ready to commit to a historic investment in Pakistan. Last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan travelled to Riyadh to negotiate a bailout package, which led to a $6 billion pledge from the kingdom.
This significant financial support is undoubtedly a welcome relief to our economy. However, as the crown prince and our premier establish the agenda for the upcoming visit, it is important that the latter prioritise the issue of the over 3,300 Pakistanis currently languishing in Saudi prisons with the foreign delegation. Despite being a crucial geopolitical ally, the kingdom executes more Pakistanis than any other foreign nationality, with at least 20 executions in 2014, 22 in 2015, seven in 2016, 17 in 2017, and 30 in 2018 — nearly 100 in the last five years.
Our governments of the past have taken no notice of these prisoners’ situation, providing little in the way of legal or financial assistance, partly due to a lack of proper protocols provided to Pakistani missions and largely due to political indifference. As former chief justice of the Lahore High Court, Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah remarked in 2017: “It appears that the government has adopted a policy of ‘no policy’ on overseas Pakistanis in Arab countries especially.”
On Feb 13, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi assured that the government would raise this issue, specifically regarding those who have been incarcerated for petty crimes, with the Saudi delegation. It is great that the government has begun to acknowledge the plight of citizens imprisoned overseas.
Over 3,300 Pakistanis are currently languishing in Saudi prisons.
However, the government has an obligation to afford the protection of the law to all Pakistanis wherever they may be, as per the Constitution, especially those who face the harshest punishments. Pakistanis imprisoned abroad have to navigate local courts without access to lawyers, impartial translators, or adequate consular assistance. They are at a significant disadvantage due to their lack of understanding of the legal process, incapability to communicate directly with the court, and inability to produce evidence from Pakistan in their defence.
The recent spate of executions of Pakistanis carried out by Saudi Arabia have come at a time when our government and the kingdom are negotiating a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA), which would allow thousands of Pakistani prisoners to be repatriated, making it easier to investigate the circumstances of their alleged crimes and allowing them the dignity of returning home and completing their sentences.
The last government seemed to have made some progress in March 2018. The federal cabinet approved prisoner transfer agreements with China and Saudi Arabia, subject to the ‘respective inputs’ of the foreign, defence and law ministries. However, no evident progress has been made on this front and 24 Pakistanis have been executed since April last year. These Pakistanis could have been repatriated and reunited with their families had the PTA been finalised.
The PML-N government suspended all PTAs in 2015 as prisoners repatriated from Britain were set free without completing their sentences under dubious circumstances. These PTAs were eventually reinstated by a Supreme Court order in April last year but it is unclear whether they are still in force, since the current government has announced that it is negotiating PTAs with the UAE and Britain.
Regardless, it is crucial that these PTAs are finalised at once. It is equally important that our government demand that the Saudi government halt all executions until a PTA is finalised. Otherwise, prisoners that could be repatriated would remain at the mercy of judges who can overturn their sentences without any forewarning. Last year, Justice Project Pakistan came to know that several Pakistanis imprisoned in Saudi Arabia had their life sentences converted to death sentences without any forewarning. Several of these Pakistanis have already been executed.
Pakistan will not be alone in its demand for the repatriation of its prisoners. India has negotiated an extradition treaty with Saudi Arabia, and the UK, US and Philippines have all signed prisoner transfer agreements with Saudi Arabia in the past. At a time when we are furthering our economic relationship with the Saudis, it is important to remember that a humanitarian obligation exists too.
Finalising a PTA with Saudi Arabia and demanding that the Saudi government halt all executions of Pakistanis until a PTA is finalised would be an excellent step towards fulfilling a commitment Mr Khan made in his emphatic first speech upon taking office. It would prove that our relationship with Saudi Arabia is a mutually respectful one, one that goes beyond photo-ops, economic or military ties.
The writer is an advocacy officer at Justice Project Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2019