THE families of 62 Pakistani prisoners who had been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia had reason to rejoice this Eid as their loved ones returned home earlier this week. These 62 returnees had been languishing in Saudi jails and were able to come home because of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special intervention. According to news reports, the prime minister arranged for funds for their return via a special flight on Tuesday. Indeed, this was a laudable step taken by Mr Khan and it must have given hope to thousands of other Pakistani prisoners in Saudi jails. There are over 11,000 Pakistanis imprisoned in foreign jails. The bulk of the prisoners are incarcerated in jails in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. A number of these prisoners are blue-collar workers who get ensnared in drug smuggling rings and are sentenced. They often do not speak the local language and are unable to understand the crimes they have been charged with, in addition to being stuck in a foreign criminal justice system without any consular representation or legal help. For many of these prisoners, the possibility of being reunited with their families is a distant dream.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had promised to release 2,107 Pakistani prisoners when he visited the country in February 2019. This pledge was followed by the release of nearly 580 Pakistani prisoners by Saudi authorities under royal clemency in October 2019. Earlier this year in May, Islamabad and Riyadh signed a prisoner transfer agreement for the repatriation of over 2,000 Pakistanis in Saudi jails. One hopes that the prime minister will continue to pursue the matter of repatriation of the remaining prisoners languishing in Saudi as well as other prisons abroad. He should also ensure that the Foreign Office enhances its consular presence in countries where Pakistanis are said to be jailed, in order to aggressively pursue the cases instituted against these prisoners so that at least those who have been unfairly charged or committed minor offences can come home.

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2021

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