A princely promise

Updated 17 Feb 2020

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The writer is the founder and executive director of Justice Project Pakistan.
The writer is the founder and executive director of Justice Project Pakistan.

A YEAR ago, a prime minister made an impassioned plea and a prince made a promise.

Two powerful men rekindled hope in more than 2,000 ordinary men and women and their families back home. It was a resounding victory for all of us who hoped that Prime Minister Imran Khan would bring up the plight of nearly 3,248 Pakistanis languishing in Saudi Arabia’s jails during Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s first state visit to Pakistan. But we got even more than we had hoped for. The prince dubbed himself Pakistan’s ambassador in Saudi Arabia and announced the next day that the kingdom would release 2,107 prisoners. It was a magnanimous gesture.

There are close to 11,000 Pakistanis imprisoned in foreign jails, of which around 6,000 are in the Middle East. The Pakistani-Saudi migration corridor, in particular, is considered one of the costliest in the world in terms of recruitment expenses for economically disadvantaged workers. Yet individuals and groups who seek to coerce and deceive indigent individuals seeking employment overseas in order to smuggle controlled substances to Saudi Arabia operate with significant impunity.

Once these men and women are imprisoned, their families back home learn of their arrest and detention weeks or months after the incident, and only after the prisoner is able to call back home. “The government never notified us about his imprisonment or his criminal case. We are alone in this process,” the family member of a prisoner we are representing told us. According to interviews with detainees and their family members back home, embassy officials rarely visited them or provided any assistance, unlike embassy officials from other countries.

This is exactly why Prime Minister Khan’s promise is so pertinent. Out of 579 prisoners reportedly released by Saudi Arabia, only 89 have been released from Saudi jails following the crown prince’s announcement. This information came to light when a list was submitted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before the Lahore High Court in November last year. The rest of the prisoners were repatriated before the prince’s state visit to Pakistan.

Only 89 prisoners have been released from Saudi jails following the announcement.

A prime minister or crown prince cannot be expected to micromanage. A gesture was made. It is now up to the bureaucracies of the two countries to ensure its implementation in letter and spirit. That is yet to happen.

In stark contrast, the kingdom executed more than 30 Pakistanis last year. These included the first Pakistani woman to be executed in Saudi Arabia in at least five years. Arrested in 2016 in Jeddah along with her husband, the woman’s five-year-old daughter was also detained — first with the mother and later at a facility for children. A relative eventually managed to fly to the kingdom and bring the child back to Pakistan around six months before her parents’ execution. The child now exhibits extreme signs of trauma. She doesn’t talk much, locks herself up in a room, and gets irritable when people ask her questions. Now eight years old, one can only imagine the weight she will carry for the rest of her life.

Back home, a son still hopes his mother will return. Ali [the name has been changed], whose mother was arrested in May 2017 in Jeddah, found out about her arrest a month later after she managed to call him from inside the prison. She did not remember many phone numbers, and it was only by a stroke of luck that she had managed to retain his contact details. She is now over 60 years old, has lost sight in one of her eyes, and complains of other ailments. Ali swears by his mother’s life that she is innocent and was duped into carrying a container with contraband that she actually thought contained only halwa given to her by the ‘philanthropist’ sponsoring her umrah.

More than a million Pakistanis live in Saudi Arabia, according to Global Media Insight, and make up the country’s third largest expatriate community. But while most countries with a significant diaspora in the kingdom have a thorough consular protection policy and prisoner transfer agreements, Pakistan has not made much headway. The Philippines government regularly intervenes on behalf of its people; Sri Lankan authorities have signed a labour deal with Saudi Arabia to protect the rights of its 500,000 citizens working there. The deal came about after a Sri Lankan woman was beheaded in the kingdom.

In the absence of permanent mechanisms, it is impossible for missions abroad to protect the rights of such a large number of migrant workers. Consequently, there has been an increase in the number of Pakistanis on death row abroad and the number of executions carried out globally since 2014.

Pakistan accounts for a whopping 57 per cent of the reported Saudi death-row population and 35pc of the foreign nationals executed by the kingdom last year. Other countries, meanwhile, have managed to bring the number of their nationals imprisoned abroad down drastically. There were 15,149 Bangladeshi nationals imprisoned abroad in 2017, but by 2019 the number had dropped to 8,848 — showing a decrease of 41.6pc.

Pakistanis convicted for drug offences are particularly vulnerable to being executed in countries that carry out the death penalty. An analysis of 97 executions of Pakistanis carried out in Saudi Arabia and Iran shows that, since January 2016, every nine out of 10 executions have been in relation to drug offences. Research conducted by Justice Project Pakistan also shows that most of these prisoners are victims of weakly regulated recruitment regimes, often deceived and coerced into trafficking drugs.

Pakistan isn’t feeling the urgency. But it should. The cost to life and livelihood is enormous. By the end of the last fiscal year, the country had received nearly $22 billion in remittances from overseas Pakistanis.

Thousands of families depend on it. We cannot let them down.

We have already done the hard bit. We have a promise. It is now time to make good on it.

The writer is the founder and executive director of Justice Project Pakistan.

Twitter: @SarahBelal_

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2020