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55 Indian fishermen freed on their independence day

August 16, 2012

KARACHI, Aug 15: The government of Pakistan on Wednesday released 55 fishermen on the occasion of the 65th Independence Day of India.

The fishermen included three teenagers who were brought from the Youthful Offenders’ School adjacent to the Karachi Central Jail earlier to be released together from the District Prison Malir.

The young fishermen — Kirit Arsi, Jagdish Mangal and Danesh — told Dawn that another young fisherman, 15-year-old Kishan Babu, could not be released as he was under treatment at the Civil Hospital Karachi. The boy, whose release order had come earlier in June, could not leave as he was unfit to travel even then. Kishan is reportedly suffering from some neurological problem for which he had to undergo surgery.

Meanwhile, 17-year-old Kirit Arsi, a student of class 10 in Junagarh, said he was arrested by the Pakistan Coast Guards some six-and-a-half months back. “My mother and sister are my only family back home. They must be very sad without me,” he said.

Asked if he continued his studies here at the Youthful Offenders’ School, he said he did not as he could not understand Urdu script.

Almost all fishermen being released sported bead bracelets. Eighteen-year-old Jagdish Mangal said they had learnt beadwork behind bars.

“I only know fishing, and that’s what I’ll resume after getting back to India,” said I8-year-old Danesh.

Meanwhile, Jatinder Arjun sitting in the row ahead of the boys said he had studied till intermediate and would try to find something different to do. “My wife was expecting our first child when I got picked up at sea. My daughter was born four months ago. I’ll finally get to see her now. I know my wife, too, will have a row with me when I reach home, but I’m okay with that as well,” he said with a sheepish smile. And then noticing my cellphone, he said: “Didi, may I call home from your phone?”

Mahesh, sporting a tattoo on his left arm that read ‘Vanita’, said that was his girlfriend’s name. Asked if she was still waiting for him, he said he knew in his heart that she would never ditch him.

Another fisherman, Bikha Deva, said he was glad on being released, but also a little sad to be leaving behind the other fishermen who couldn’t be released with them.

“We have only been here for six-and-a-half months, but there are three others — Sundas Khema, Khema Kara and Manu Bhagwan — who have been here for the past 17 months. Their release orders have not been issued. Today they bid us farewell in tears,” he said.

Mahinder, the captain of his boat, said there were six fishermen on their boat when they crossed over to Pakistan, but the Pakistan Coast Guards only arrested three. “The three that they let go were much older than us and the Coast Guards let them climb into another Indian boat, which was also allowed to head back to Indian waters as they confiscated our boat while taking us into custody,” he said.

About 150 Pakistani fishermen are reported to be in Indian jails, some of whom having been there for years.

‘A goodwill gesture’

Sindh Minister for Law and Prisons Ayaz Soomro, who had come to the District Prison Malir to see the fishermen off, said Pakistan was releasing the fishermen as a goodwill gesture on India’s Independence Day.

“We released 311 earlier and are releasing 55 today, as doing it we hope to boost our friendship with our neighbours. I know that they didn’t release any of our fishermen on our Independence Day on Tuesday, but we have made the first move in the hope that they will reciprocate,” he told the media.

“Fighting solves nothing but talks on the table do bring forth some solutions,” the minister said. “Recently, I spoke to Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar about the release of our fishermen, who have been locked up in Indian prisons for years. And she said the matter was part of their agenda for the next meeting with her Indian counterpart.”

Giving away gifts to the fishermen, Minister Soomro said: “These fishermen have been looked after as our guests. We have tried to provide them with all kinds of facilities here, but jail is jail after all. It is not a good place to stay in. We would have released them sooner, but legal formalities also take their time.”

The fishermen waved goodbye as they boarded two air-conditioned coaches that will take them to Lahore from where they will be handed over to the Indian authorities at the Wagah border on Thursday.