THE last few weeks have seen a monumental shift in Pakistan’s political landscape. While much has changed in principle and practice, the country remains enmeshed in the same struggles it has faced under various regimes. The only help for Pakistanis detained abroad is a lifeline from the Pakistani government — regardless of who is steering the ship.
Over the past few years, Pakistan has ramped up diplomatic efforts for its citizens caught in the web of foreign legal systems. The Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis has been the key actor in facilitating repatriations. These interventions garnered broad support from members of the government, irrespective of their political affiliation. The hope is that under the leadership of the newly elected prime minister and his coalition government, the overseas Pakistanis’ ministry, together with the foreign ministry, will expedite efforts to help Pakistanis facing criminal cases abroad.
Approximately nine million Pakistanis are employed outside their home country. Nearly 10 per cent of Pakistan’s GDP is comprised of remittances from these overseas Pakistanis, with figures having consistently risen under the PML-N’s governance in the past. With so many Pakistanis living and working abroad, some have also had trouble navigating foreign legal systems. As of June 2021, there were almost 10,000 Pakistanis languishing in jails across the globe. In many cases, Pakistanis seeking jobs abroad are trapped into transporting drugs, only to be jailed upon arrival in the destination state. A number of them have been sentenced to death.
Out of the approximately 10,000 Pakistani prisoners overseas, 2,555 are imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, and significant numbers are in the UAE and Oman. Many of these Pakistanis are vulnerable to severe miscarriages of justice. Lack of translation services, little, if any, legal support and no guarantee of consular services leaves them practically without defence in foreign courts.
The PM’s trip to Saudi Arabia must result in good news for jailed Pakistanis there.
Long-term solutions to this issue require changes at many levels. In compliance with the Constitution, international law and the directions of the superior courts, the government must draft and implement a consular protection policy to aid Pakistanis residing overseas, particularly those who are interacting with foreign criminal justice systems. Moreover, there is a need to create cross-departmental harmony and cooperation to ensure that the relevant ministries have clear responsibilities and mandates with regard to each element of the diaspora policy, particularly where detention is concerned. Finally, there must be political will to increase cross-border cooperation within South Asia in order to bring forward a regional voice which seeks better working conditions in the Middle Eastern countries.
In terms of the legal machinery required, the PML-N, which has historically maintained good relations with Saudi Arabia, initiated negotiations with the Saudi government to sign a prisoner transfer agreement. Efforts which began under the PML-N led to an agreement being signed in 2022. This is perhaps the best indication that the plight of overseas Pakistanis is a bipartisan issue — with all parties devoting resources and actualising political will to bring about positive change.
Furthermore, Mr Shehbaz Sharif’s maiden visit to Saudi Arabia as prime minister is happening in the holy month of Ramazan when the kingdom shows mercy to hundreds of prisoners, both local and foreign, and reduces their sentences. With the holy month coming to a close, it is crucial that the Pakistani government capitalise on the opportunity by raising the issue with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the prime minister’s visit.
In addition to the month of fasting and the prisoner releases it brings, the current government must ensure that the prisoner transfer agreement is implemented in letter and spirit. As per the agreement, all Pakistanis who have been convicted by Saudi courts are eligible to be transferred to Pakistan, so that they may serve out their sentences in their homeland. Though eligible for this relief, many prisoners, particularly the 40 on death row who are running out of time, are being needlessly deprived of access to their loved ones and the comfort of their own culture and customs.
We have seen the PML-N take a stand for prisoners in the past — even those sentenced to the harshest of punishments. An appeal made by then prime minister Nawaz Sharif in 2016 led to the staying of the execution of cancer patient Zulfiqar Ali in Indonesia. A similar push this time is crucial.
This spirit should prevail as this new government begins its journey. Regardless of how the tide turns in this country, Pakistanis detained abroad must not be left to navigate the high seas alone.
The writer is a lawyer working with Justice Project Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, April 28th, 2022