Broken lives

Published December 18, 2019
The writer is a lawyer working with Justice Project Pakistan.
The writer is a lawyer working with Justice Project Pakistan.

A PAKISTANI in a foreign jail is not an uncommon phenomenon. Approximately 11,000 of us are imprisoned around the world. We cannot acknowledge International Migrants Day this Dec 18 without also acknowledging that most of these individuals migrated with the weight of poverty and destitution on their backs, their feeble hope for a better life trailing behind them. They are born without privilege, and to uncertain futures. Upon realising that the roads that took them further from home have led to a dead end, they are ordinarily ill-equipped to communicate with their captors, let alone provide a defence. How do you pursue rights you cannot even be sure you have?

The percentage of incarcerated individuals worldwide is rising exponentially, and these populations are more diverse than ever before, with many prisoners in a country’s prison being foreign nationals. Bilateral or multilateral treaties between states in the form of Prison Transfer Agreements (PTAs) can facilitate the transfer of a foreign prisoner back to their state of origin, improving prison conditions and creating a safer environment for the transferred prisoner, one that is more conducive to rehabilitation and eventual reintegration into society.

What is a Pakistani prisoner detained overseas facing?

Despite the potential for fruitful transfer and the incentive for states to arrange them, as with any multi-state negotiation, PTAs are not straightforward to enter into. Perhaps this is why, with only a handful of functional PTAs to its credit, Pakistan has fallen behind global standards in procuring them. There is a myriad of complex decisions to make, including determining the eligibility and procedure for applying for a transfer, and standard on which to decide them, and along what lines the sentences of the sending state can be altered, if at all, by the receiving state. Once in place, many PTAs are suspended due to breaches between the sending and receiving states, and an inability to trust the criminal justice system that is going to be administering the sentence incurred for crimes in another.

What is a Pakistani prisoner detained overseas facing? With the vast majority of them awaiting trial and serving sentences in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman, they encounter an alien legal system and lack the capacity to navigate it. This is a pervasive threat in a relentless maze, and lack of language proficiency is a wound inflicted on an accused every time they interact with the criminal justice system. Interrogations are conducted and charges framed in a foreign tongue; even if a lawyer is present, no translators are provided at trial, and the sentenced person is thrust into a prison where they cannot communicate with their contemporaries.

Perhaps one of the most compelling neologisms in this area has been that of ‘solitary linguistic confinement’, which likens the practice of detaining prisoners in isolation away from the general prison population with the idea that a language barrier effectively isolates prisoners from meaningful contact with those around them, resulting in similar detrimental effects.

With a growing body of research identifying solitary confinement as a means of torture, a 2013 study on linguistic isolation posed that omitting to intervene in situations where a prisoner lacks the ability to communicate with those around him is tantamount to a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture. It was argued that the two concepts share the same repercussions for prisoners, including heightened risk of developing mental illness.

Disoriented, alone and afraid, cultural barriers can make even basic non-verbal courtesy and humanity difficult to perceive. Lacking normal socialisation, these prisoners are further marginalised as they cannot undertake educational courses, or participate in most employment or training opportunities while incarcerated, and are far less able than their counterparts to re-enter society as productive individuals upon their release.

What does a person do when they return from limbo in a foreign land, having lost ties to their support systems, and are left permanently vulnerable due to isolation and perpetual uncertainty? They piece together their lives as best they can, and many lose further due to poverty and illness. To lose the rehabilitative value of prison, but also lose your liberty, to forget yourself while grappling with the laws of another land, but also to have your family forget you — this is a travesty. Supposedly equal under our Constitution, we relegate them to permanently broken lives, no matter the length of their sentence.

Pakistan must utilise the PTAs it has and negotiate further agreements with other states immediately to rescue its citizens abroad. After contributing to the forces that drove them out of this country, the least we can do is give them the chance to repair and rebuild themselves, and gain the strength to do so from the roots of their own land.

The writer is a lawyer working with Justice Project Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2019

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