Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF)Abdul Rasheed Gaho is a Pakistani fisherman from the Gharo district in Sindh. Several years ago, he was out at sea when he got caught in a storm and was washed ashore on the Indian side of the border. He was arrested by Indian border officials, and after languishing in an Indian jail for several years as a prisoner of war, he finally managed to return home – only to find his wife busy preparing for her second marriage. His friends and family, because of his prolonged absence, had written him off as being dead.

This was just one of the incidents narrated by Muhammad Ali Shah, President of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, at a press conference at the Karachi Press Club where he spoke about the plight of Pakistani prisoners in Indian jails.

He mentioned that there were 61 missing prisoners whose existence had still not been acknowledged by either the Pakistani or the Indian government. “We get to know about them when released prisoners return to Pakistan and tell us about these missing persons who happened to be their jail companions.”

He added that 14 prisoners, who had been stranded in a cyclone which occurred in the Arabian Sea in 1999, were still suffering in Indian jails.

Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid, who also spoke at the conference, said that he had been working for the last two years for the release of Pakistani prisoners in India (and vice versa). He said some 440 Pakistani prisoners were languishing in Indian jails of whom 60 were women and children, and 105 had not been provided with a counselor.

He added that 180 Indian prisoners, one of whom is a seven-year-old child, would be released on Saturday from the Malir Jail and sent to the Wagah Border.

Karamat Ali, representing the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) mentioned that the sea border between India and Pakistan was poorly defined, and that instances of trespassing fishermen is a common occurrence, not just in Pakistan but in other countries too. “According to the UN convention, fishermen should only be punished lightly and should be released after a small fine or seizure of their catch.”

Syed Shamsuddin from the Human Rights Commission Pakistan (HRCP) said that such fishermen “are not hard core criminals.

They should be released on humanitarian grounds because arresting one prisoner affects a whole family. Governments on both sides should focus on white collar criminals who cause far more damage to the country”.

The panel suggested that all prisoners who are above the ago of 60, or are women, children or mentally ill should be released on humanitarian grounds and that prisoners charged for crossing borders be given lenient sentences.

It also said that prisoners should get access to a legal counselor at the earliest and that all trials involving foreign prisoners be expedited.

Karamat Ali also said that fishermen were no longer given their boats back once they had been seized by the authorities. “Neither are their damages compensated. A permanent solution for these prisoners should be implemented. What is the point of releasing prisoners, when you keep arresting more.”

Published in The News