INDIAN fishermen display rosaries made by them during detention in Karachi’s Malir jail.—NCHR
INDIAN fishermen display rosaries made by them during detention in Karachi’s Malir jail.—NCHR

MORE than 740 fishermen incarcerated in Indian and Pakistani prisons for trespassing water borders have completed their sentences, but their release and eventual repatriation have not materialised due to the apathy of governments on both sides of the border.

In Indian jails of Delhi, Gujarat and Tihar, over 113 Pakistanis who had been detained for trespassing water borders in 2015-2022 are waiting to return home after completing their sentences.

But they remain in prison in spite of the Consular Access Agreement signed in 2008 wherein Islamabad and New Delhi agreed to “release and repatriate persons within one month of confirmation of their national status and completion of their sentences”.

“My son had gone fishing, but the winds were strong and his boat drifted away. He never came back,” says a woman in a conversation with the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR). The commission launched a campaign alongside the Legal Aid Society advocating the release of fishermen detained in both countries and highlighting the issue at all fora.

Fishermen detained in both countries called victims of ‘legal complexities, weak communication’

The woman, surrounded by her grandchildren, appealed to the government to bring her son home as his children were looking forward to their father’s homecoming.

“My father had gone fishing…but never came back,” his daughter said.

‘631 ready to go home’

The story of Indian fishermen imprisoned in Karachi’s Malir jail is no different. According to the government record, “654 fishermen are detained” in Pakistan; out of which, 631 are ready for repatriation.

A group of fishermen, who had been detained after their launch wandered into Pakistan’s waters, said they were detained in 2018 on board the same fishing launch. “I have five kids; I haven’t talked to them since 2019,” one of them said in response to a question.

All prisoners had one thing in common — overextended stays in jail and lack of contact with their families.

“We ventured into the sea to catch fish, but these people [maritime agency/coast guard] detained us and brought us here [jail],” said a greybeard clad in dark clothes, on the verge of breaking down.

A young man interjects the conversation, pleading, “Do something for us. There is nobody back home to take care of family in my absence.” He added that for the past four years, they were being assured that they would go home but that never happened.

“Last time, they took us to a court and the judge said we’d be able to go home in three months,” the prisoner said, lamenting that the incident happened four months ago.

In reference to the Consular Access Agreement, a prisoner said they do have a yearly contact with the consular but there has been no contact with the family. “The consulate [sic] does come here every year but prisoners are released in small batches,” one of the detainees said as he called upon his country’s authorities for repatriation.

In the absence of support from the Indian government amid long sentences, these fishermen make beads to eke out a living.

It may be noted that 200 Indian fishermen will likely to be released on May 12, as per reports in the media.

No progress on SC judgement

After the plight of prisoners was highlighted in the Supreme Court through a plea submitted by the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, a three-member bench of the top court issued a set of instructions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maritime Security Agency, and Ministry of Interior in September 2018, asking them to take measures to prevent the detention of Pakistani fishermen.

The court also ordered the foreign ministry to create a website containing details of prisoners jailed in Indian prisons. This database was supposed to have personal details of prisoners, place of imprisonment, status of legal proceedings, and possible time period of repatriation.

The court had said the government would make efforts to ensure the implementation of the Consular Access Agreement as well as provide legal assistance, including payment of fines, to fishermen in India’s jails.

The court also asked the government to evolve an appropriate mechanism to be developed as to how to implement the recommendations and rectify the problems identified in the 7th meeting of the India-Pakistan Joint Judicial Committee on Prisoners within three months of the disposal order of the case.

In the order, the Supreme Court had also directed the ministries of interior and foreign affairs to ensure “prompt response to any representation” regarding the detention of Pakistan prisoners in Indian jails.

‘Shifting responsibility’

However, despite the court order, there has been no apparent progress on the issue. According to an NCHR official, the foreign ministry asked the commission to approach the interior ministry regarding the repatriation of prisoners detained in India as “everything was clear on their end”.

“The foreign office was quick to respond, but officials of the interior ministry did not give two hoots about the issue,” the official said, adding that three letters were written to the ministry in March and April but there was no reply.

A source in the NCHR said they may seek contempt of court proceedings against the ministry over its refusal to brief the commission on the status of fishermen jailed in India.

In response to Dawn’s requests about the status of this correspondence, Ministry of Interior spokesperson Qadir Tiwana chose not to reply in spite of multiple reminders since Tuesday.

Dormant joint committee

According to the NCHR official, a joint judicial committee to facilitate the return of prisoners from both countries has been dormant for years.

In 2018, reports in Indian media suggested that New Delhi has appointed its members to the commission and also asked Pakistan for the same.

However, Pakistan has yet to notify its members to the joint commission — the only member from the Pakistani side is former justice Nasir Aslam Zahid, who is reportedly not well.

FO Spokesperson Mumtaz Zehra Baloch was approached for clarity on the status of the joint commission as well as the top court’s order regarding the creation of the website to monitor fishermen detained in India.

Ms Baloch responded, “Actually, these details would be available with [the] Ministry of Interior.”

The interior ministry spokesperson did not respond to repeated messages and calls.

On the other side of the border, authorities are not so keen on facilitating the fisherfolk either. A letter written by the NCHR chairperson to her Indian counterpart on the condition of fishermen incarcerated on both sides of the border has remained unanswered.

Similarly, a letter to the Indian and Pakistani premiers in April this year by several rights groups also remained an exercise in futility.

Speaking about the situation of prisoners, NCHR Chairperson Rabiya Javeri Agha said these were one of the most vulnerable communities in Pakistan. “These people are not criminals, and it is really pathetic that they have no recourse to get in touch with their families/children,” she said, seeking support from both sides of the border to facilitate the return of the fisherfolk who are victims of “legal complexities and weak communication”.

Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2023

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