ISLAMABAD: As part of its continuing effort for the return of fishermen on humanitarian grounds, the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) said on Sunday it had launched a campaign demanding the repatriation of such prisoners currently being held in prisons in India and Pakistan.

Under this campaign, the commission aimed to highlight the ordeal of those held in prison for accidently crossing the maritime borders and national and international agreements applied to such prisoners, besides urging the governments of Pakistan and India to schedule talks to ensure the return of the detained fishermen.

According to data collected by the commission, there were an estimated 1,155 foreign prisoners in Pakistan, with a significant proportion being foreign fishermen who were arrested after reportedly trespassing into Pakistan’s territorial waters. The vast majority of fishermen were from India, particularly its state Gujarat.

NCHR’s campaign started with visits to the Malir prison, Karachi, to oversee the situation of the foreign prisoners. The campaign was in cooperation with the Legal Aid Society, which had been working to ensure the release of foreign fishermen who had completed their sentences.

Under this initiative, the NCHR lobbied with the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to expedite the release of prisoners and both ministries agreed to utilise their resources to allow for a quick repatriation of the fishermen.

In addition, the NCHR chairperson held a meeting with the director of the India Desk and assistant director at the India Desk to verify details of Pakistani nationals being detained in India and to update the India mission on NCHR’s campaign to release Indian fishermen who were being detained under the Foreigners Act and had completed their sentences.

The meeting also discussed steps taken to ensure that consular access was given to all incarcerated foreign prisons.

The commission had also developed a policy brief covering the background and details around the issues and recommending urgent policy and procedural measures to ensure the repatriation of foreign fishermen to their country of origin on humanitarian grounds and for easing the strain on prison resources.

The policy paper urged a long-term solution to the issue and urged the Pakistani government to appoint members for its vacant seats in the Joint Judicial Commission with India.

These arbitrary arrests of fishermen on both sides indicated the rise of a potential humanitarian crisis in the making — with more than 650 Indian fishermen currently in Pakistani jails and another 100 plus Pakistani fishermen residing in Indian jails.

“These are the poorest and most vulnerable communities. They are not criminals. It is the job of the government to return them home as soon as possible. The stories at the jail are beyond sad and heart-wrenching,” said National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) Chairperson Rabiya Javeri Agha.

She said that the commission had already written to the chairperson of NHRC India to help facilitate the return of Pakistanis fishermen from Indian jails.

“It is hoped that both countries work together to alleviate the terrible tragedy of fishermen away from home for years on end,” she said.

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2023

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