WITH news of Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s three-day official visit to Iran comes renewed hope for Pakistani citizens trapped in the country. On the heels of a long-awaited repatriation of Pakistani prisoners from Sri Lanka, this is the opportune moment to facilitate a similar repatriation from Iran — a state which has demonstrated a willingness to cooperate and a particularly humane approach to prisoner transfer and release since the Covid-19 pandemic struck the world in early 2020.
The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan 1973 affords its citizens many rights, and also widens the application of some of those rights past its own borders. Article 4, the right to due process, has been deemed to be of such importance that the state is obligated to protect the same for citizens “wherever they may be”. Thus, any citizen outside Pakistan is entitled to treatment in accordance with the law regardless of their whereabouts. The state of Pakistan owes a duty to each prisoner in Iran to ensure that they are dealt with in a lawful manner, particularly in the provision of consular assistance at every stage of imprisonment and the facilitation of repatriation.
According to documents submitted to the Lahore High Court by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 2021, there are currently 87 Pakistanis imprisoned in Iran. Out of these, 50 Pakistanis have been convicted of various offences, while 37 remain under trial. Moreover, Iran and Pakistan signed an Agreement on Transfer of Sentenced Persons on May 11, 2014. Under the terms of this document, 50 prisoners are eligible for repatriation to Pakistan to serve their remaining sentence within their own country.
Despite the fact that the Agreement on Transfer of Sentenced Persons was signed in May 2014, at least seven Pakistanis were executed in Iran between then and 2018. These seven individuals died in a foreign country without access to their loved ones, and without being able to bid farewell to their homeland. Had they been repatriated to Pakistan, they would have, at the very least, been afforded these humanities. It is possible that the death sentence awarded to the individual in Iran was incompatible with the laws of Pakistan, and would have been altered by our court to a more suitable punishment.
According to the agreement, Pakistani courts retain the right to alter a sentence, and both parties to the agreement retain the right to grant remission and commutation. Perhaps these individuals, often victims of terrible circumstances, would not have been put to death at all, especially not in a land to which they did not belong.
It is only through political will and increased cooperation that such travesties can be avoided. The tenacity and commitment of the PTI government has shown exceptional results in recent times. In November 2020, 41 Pakistanis returned from Sri Lanka in the first repatriation of its kind in seven years. Prior to this, the government ensured large repatriations from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, many prisoners were brought home as a direct result of the prime minister’s interventions while on an official visit.
Iran has reportedly been cooperative with regard to the idea of consular access thus far. Over the last year, Justice Shahid Waheed of the Lahore High Court has been closely monitoring the issue and passing directions to the Pakistani government to ensure the protection of the fundamental rights of Pakistanis imprisoned in Iran, which has created an impetus for negotiations between the states. A diplomatic intervention by the foreign minister at this time will not only assuage the concerns of the court, but could result in another massive win for the government.
An overseas prisoner faces a host of issues over and above the consequences of ordinary imprisonment. They are isolated due to the language barrier, less likely to be able to access services such as healthcare and rehabilitation programmes, and devoid of the social support prisoners receive through visitors and family contact. The PTI’s manifesto devotes an entire section to overseas Pakistanis, and notably, does not forget or minimise the needs of those imprisoned abroad. The manifesto promises to “provide consular and legal services to all Pakistanis jailed abroad. We make best efforts to bring prisoners like Dr Afia Siddiqui and others back to Pakistan.”
At this key juncture in PTI’s term, and at this opportune moment during an official visit that has strengthened our alliance with Iran, the foreign minister must raise the issue of consular access for all Pakistanis imprisoned in Iran, as well as the repatriation of 50 convicted Pakistanis back to Pakistan. Many overseas prisoners have the PTI to thank for their return to their homeland. Let us hope that 50 returnees from Iran can be added to this list in the immediate future.
The writer leads the litigation team at Justice Project Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2021