ON Feb 18, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the immediate release of over 2,000 Pakistani prisoners currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. The order came after Prime Minister Imran Khan made an impassioned appeal to the prince in a televised press conference the day before. It is reassuring that Prime Minister Khan is following through on his promise, expressed in his first speech in office, to ensure the welfare of overseas Pakistanis.
The government’s recent successes in protecting citizens abroad shows how crucial a role diplomacy can play in resolving such issues. Just last month, Dubai agreed to share information on Pakistani prisoners with Islamabad as a first step to facilitate their repatriation. I hope that the government continues its diplomatic efforts to protect vulnerable Pakistanis in countries where they face imprisonment and harsh punishments, particularly in the Gulf, the region with the largest Pakistani prison population.
Diplomatic success, however, can only complement long-term reform, not replace it. If these recent advances in protecting the interest of overseas Pakistanis are to be converted into long-term gains, the government must implement mechanisms and protocols that tackle the core issues indigent Pakistanis abroad face.
It is time that the government implements a universal consular protection policy that provides guidelines to all Pakistan missions abroad in case of the arrest or detention of a Pakistani national. Ensuring that missions follow through on their responsibilities to Pakistani citizens arrested and detained abroad will facilitate their release and repatriation, if and when necessary. At the moment, consulates and embassies are unable, and mostly unwilling, to provide sufficient financial and legal support to Pakistanis who are arrested overseas.
Executions of Pakistani citizens in Saudi Arabia must be halted.
According to official figures, 80 per cent of all Pakistani prisoners in the UAE and 44pc in Saudi Arabia are currently imprisoned for heinous crimes. The government affords little to no protection to these prisoners, who often face the harshest punishment as a matter of policy. As of now, the only directions available to Pakistani missions abroad are those devised in 2010 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the directive of the Supreme Court. As per the guidelines, priority is given to ‘deserving’ citizens, and that too is left to the discretion of Pakistani embassy and consulate officials. As such, possibly thousands of Pakistanis are left stranded in prisons abroad without any official assistance from their government.
A consular policy would ensure that missions and consulates make timely interventions to ensure the best possible outcomes for Pakistani prisoners and that their rights are not violated in case of arrest or detention. It would also allow the government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to hold embassies and consulates accountable for not fulfilling their duties to citizens living abroad.
The government must also continue its work on finalising prisoner transfer agreements with other countries. Prior to the Saudi delegation’s visit, the Ministry of Interior informed the Lahore High Court that it has shared a draft prisoner transfer agreement with the Saudi government and is awaiting a response. Pakistan must demand that executions of its citizens in Saudi Arabia are halted until the PTA is finalised.
A PTA with the UAE, which has the second-largest overseas Pakistani prisoner population, is also in the works. It is imperative that these agreements are signed as soon as possible so that Pakistanis imprisoned in both countries are able to come back home and serve the remainder of their sentences close to their families.
Finally, the implementation of existing laws governing the low-skilled migrant labour recruitment regime is necessary. The Pakistan-Saudi and Pakistan-UAE migration corridors are among the most expensive in the world, with finding and starting work in either country costing Rs487,239 on average. Implementing existing laws and drafting new ones to curb the exploitative and illegal practices of sub-agents, who hire labourers and buy and sell visas on the informal market, will go a long way towards protecting Pakistanis workers from circumstances that land them in jail in the Gulf and beyond.
For now, the fact that over 2,000 Pakistani prisoners are returning home is reason to celebrate. It is an accomplishment to successfully negotiate the freedom of two-thirds of the entire Pakistani prison population in the kingdom.
As we wait to greet our citizens, we have to continue to work towards facilitating Pakistanis that are still imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, entrapped in an unfair criminal justice system. Over the coming months, one looks forward to the government completing this task, and continuing its work to protect vulnerable Pakistanis across the world.
The writer is an advocacy officer at Justice Project Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, March 3rd, 2019