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The big catch

March 17, 2013

Winds, waves and one little mistake can land fisherfolk in jail indefinitely

Their names are different, so is their faith and nationality. Yet, one link that binds Indian and Pakistani fishermen is the constant fear of being caught in each others’ waters where they might accidentally stray.

Karachi’s Malir District jail harbours many an untold story of Indian fishermen who left their homes one morning to earn their livelihood, but never returned. Arrested by the Maritime Security Agency for crossing the border illegally, they are imprisoned under the Foreigner’s Act 1947 as well as Fisheries Act and considered prisoners of war.

Their families have no idea where their men disappeared and sometimes it takes months before they are traced and informed of their fishermen’s whereabouts. “They obviously do not carry passports, so it’s difficult to determine their nationality,” says (retd.) Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid, who’s NGO, Legal Aid, is actively working towards the jailed fishermen’s cause on both sides of the border. “This is a very serious issue but probably not on the priority list of either of the governments’ involved.” said Zahid.

In order to ascertain the nationality, the magistrate refers the case to the advocate general who refers it to the ministry of interior from where it’s transferred to the ministry of foreign affairs. The case is then handed over to the ministry of external affairs in India and then the home ministry, which passes it on to the state level, and then to the SHO who investigates and determines the nationality. The conclusions are returned through the same route.

“When a fisherman is caught in the Indian state of Gujarat, the provincial government informs the federal government in Delhi,” explains Zahid. “They in turn inform the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi. After obtaining permission from the Indian government, the Pakistani diplomat travels to Gujarat jail to meet the fishermen, get information and addresses, names of relatives etc., to be forwarded to Islamabad. Details are sent to the district police in Karachi, as most fishermen are Sindh based.

Policemen are assigned to check and verify the details after which, the same procedure is adopted to send back the information, by which time a year will have passed.”

“The entire procedure can sometimes take up to a year,” says Zahid, “Which is why the home ministry of the two governments should expedite the affair.”

As of now, three NGOs — Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) and Legal Aid — are practically involved in working for the release of Pakistani and Indian fishermen, suffering in jail on both sides. Through networks developed with Indian civil society and human rights organisations, these NGOs not only fight for their release but also try to ensure the well-being of such prisoners.

“Globally, whenever the fishermen of the neighbouring country are caught straying into waters they are returned. India has agreements with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka so that if fishermen are caught, their catch is confiscated and they are sent back on the spot,” says Mohammad Ali Shah, the chief of Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF). “Similar agreements should be signed and a Saarc level protocol must be formulated.”

In early 2007, the Indo-Pak Joint Judicial Committee, comprising four retired judges each from India and Pakistan was set up to investigate civilian imprisonments on both sides, particularly of fisherfolk but no progress was made.

According to PFF coordinator Sami Memon, the only correspondence they can have with their families is via snail mail and that too is few and far between. “You should keep in mind that it is a political issue, rather than legal,” says Memon. “The border forces arrest these poor people in the name of violating sea territories, which do not have clear demarcations. Since it is a political issue whenever tension rises between the two governments, the fishermen pay a higher price.”

Karamat Ali of Piler said that an NGO from the Indian held Kashmir had filed a case in the Indian Supreme Court saying that some people from the Pakistani side of Kashmir were being held in prisons though they had completed their prison terms. The court ruled that anybody who had served his term could not be kept in prison. He said that when that ruling came they brought it here and a case was filed by PFF and Piler in the court to get Indian fishermen, who had completed their prison terms, released. The court ordered their release and over 450 Indian fishermen were released. He said that India also released the Pakistani fishermen who had completed their prison terms.

As of now, there are 415 fishermen imprisoned in Malir jail — according to Zahid and PFF — despite the fact that more than 400 had been released just around nine months ago. There’s no particular system or arrangement to deal with such crisis, and while authorities claim that the maximum sentence for the offence is six months, in reality these fishermen languish in jails for much longer, at times more than three years.

“What we need is to demarcate waters which fisherfolk from both the countries can regard as a common fishing zone — not unlike the zone released to international trawlers. Fishermen can be registered and provided with mutually agreed identity cards.” asserts Karamat Ali of Piler. Besides, says Ali, GPS installation must be mandatory so that fishermen are warned not to cross after a certain point. Security forces can patrol the sea areas as well to warn away those who’ve strayed into the ‘other’ waters, he suggests. —Sa’adia Reza & Bhagwandas