It has been more than a decade that 17 foreigners including four women have been languishing in jails In Pakistan due to failed efforts to identify their nationality.
Notifications issued by the federal interior ministry say that internees have been sentenced under the Foreigners’ Act for illegal entry into Pakistan. “They are mentally challenged and unable to tell their country of origin or Identity. They have completed their sentences but cannot be deported or released due to a lack of identity.”
A 50 year old prisoner with hearing and speech disabilities has been interned in ‘a Pakistani jail’ for almost two decades. Arrested on March 26, 2002, the unnamed foreigner completed his three-month sentence on June 27, 2002 but there are no signs of his release.
A news report published in The Hindu, in June 2021 said that Pakistan had conveyed the situation of 17 (previously 18) mentally challenged prisoners to India six years ago.
Among the four mentally challenged foreign women, 45 year-old Nakiya from Bihar, has served the longest period in internment in Pakistan. Arrested on April 30, 2007, she completed her sentence on September 10, 2007.
Likewise, 34 year- old Esma Maskan was arrested on May 10, 2007 and completed her sentence on September 12, the same year.
Ajeera, 30, who hails from West Bengal, was arrested on May 13, 2009. Gullo Jan, wife of Nandraj, was arrested on October 17, 2011 and has been in prison even after completion of her three-month sentence for border crossing.
According to Indian official sources, Indian officials given consular access to these prisoners were not able to verify their nationality because of the state of their physical and mental health. “The Indian government had proposed to Pakistan to allow a visit of Indian medical experts to examine these foreign prisoners but as yet no response has been received,” a source said.
New Delhi also proposed the revival of the Indo-Pak Judicial Committee on Prisoners to look into the release of elderly prisoners on humanitarian grounds. The committee was formed in 2007 for legal and humanitarian support to these prisoners – both civilian and fisherfolk – but has not met since 2013. It comprised retired judges on both sides. It was Pakistan’s turn to organize the next meeting. “New Delhi has expressed serious concern at the plight of prisoners and has urged both the states to work together on this humanitarian issue,” the source said.
Previously, the federal interior ministry made public appeal for “information regarding 18 mentally-challenged prisoners, including four females, awaiting deportation for several years due to lack of information about their nationalities after having served their nominal sentences for illegal border crossing.”
The Indian High Commission in Islamabad had also put up details of 18 mentally-challenged prisoners on its website, appealing to the public in India to share any information they may have about their identities.
Indian official sources told Voicepk that one of the prisoners, Plan Sharma, son of Poni Sharma, who was arrested on February 4, 2013, and had been in internment since March 20 the same year, was sent back to India upon the completion of his sentence. Sharma was the only one who was verified as an Indian national, and repatriated in August 2021, according to Indian official sources. This explains why his name is not mentioned in the list on the Indian High Commission website.
The list posted by the Indian High Commission carries additional detail about the approximate age, the presumed state/province of residence, and the identification marks of the prisoners.
Ajeera, daughter of Asmola, was arrested on May 13, 2009 and served her sentence till March 22, 2009. Gullo Jan, wife of Nandraj, was arrested on October 17, 2011 and has been in prison even after completion of her three-month sentence for border crossing. Ajeera has been named ‘Ajmeera’ with aliases of ‘Ajbeera’ and ‘Ajeeran’ on the Indian list. She is about 30 years old and a resident of the West Bengal. Her identification mark is listed as a thick lower lip.
Meanwhile, male prisoner Ismo Maskan has been interned for 18 years in Pakistan despite completion of his sentence on January 23, 2004. The 34-year-old foreigner was arrested for illegal border crossing on December 24, 2003.
Siloraf Saleem, 41, was arrested July 23, 2009 and is interned in a Pakistani jail since the completion of his sentence on January 9, 2010. His other aliases are ‘Sheikh Salim’, ‘Seikh Salim’ and ‘Silrof Salim’. It is understood that he is a resident of Bharampur in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh.
Forty year old Kishwa Bhagwan, was arrested on April 7, 2010, spending close to 12 years in internment after completing his sentence on July 7, 2010.
Roopi Pall , 31, was arrested for illegal border crossing February 3, 2010. ‘Ropi Paul’ and ‘Rupi Paul’ are his other aliases. He has been interred since July 7, 2010. It is understood that he hails from Madyakalyani village in Nadia district of West Bengal.
Forty six year old Raju Roy from Bihar is known by aliases of ‘Raju Rai’ and ‘Jai Prakash’. He was arrested on July 19, 2010 and interned since March 29, 2011.
Hamid, another 45 year old foreigner was arrested on February 13, 2009. He completed his one-year imprisonment for illegal border crossing on February 13, 2010.
Another unidentified foreigner with hearing and speech disabilities was arrested for illegal border crossing on March 13, 2015. He completed his sentence on January 4, 2017. The man is aged between 30 to 35 years.
Sham Sundar also has speech and hearing disabilities. He has spent about 10 years in internment after being arrested for illegal border crossing on March 27, 2011. He completed his sentence on April 7, 2012. The 34-year-old foreigner is presumed to hail from Islampur in Saharsa district in Bihar.
Raju, 25, from Raipara village in Hooghly district of West Bengal, was arrested on January 24, 2015 and served his eight months imprisonment sentence.
Thirty year-old Ramesh from Porbandar in Gujarat, was arrested on December 6, 2013. He completed his sentence on March 27, 2014.
Raju was arrested on August 18, 2012. He completed his sentence on November 17, 2012. He is not listed among the mentally-challenged persons on the Indian High Commission website.
Peace activist and journalist Jatin Desai says, “Consular access must be given within the initial three months to enable governments exchange information officially about all the people in their custody, believed to be citizens from the other side. Consular access will include the date of the arrest, the charges under which they had been jailed, their consular access status and case status.”
Desai works for cross-border prisoners and is associated with PIPFPD (Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy) – an organization founded by the late human rights veteran I.A Rehman.
Desai says that it is a challenging task for a family to find their relative who has been arrested across the border.
The Agreement on Consular Access was signed on May 21, 2008 to develop better relations between the two countries. Among other things, it included sharing information on prisoners.
“There is a clause that both the countries shall provide consular access within three months of the arrest but it always takes longer. The sentence is just three months for the violation of a passport or trespassing but court procedures take a long time and it generally takes one or two years before the matter is closed. In most cases, consular access is delayed – though there is a written agreement. Another lacuna is that there is no mention of the number of days within which the nationality should be confirmed. In case a prisoner is mentally challenged, it is even more difficult.”
Indian official sources say that as of May, 2022, there are three Indian civilians who have completed their sentence but they not been deported despite verification of their nationality “Out of the 652 Indian fishermen imprisoned in Pakistani jails, 335 have completed their sentences but have not been deported to India.”
According to the list of civilian prisoners and fishermen exchanged between India and Pakistan in January 2022, India currently has 282 Pakistani civilian prisoners and 73 fishermen in its custody.
The situation violates Article 12(4) of the United Nations General Assembly’s ‘International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’: “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his/her own country.”
Both countries are party to this covenant but are not following it.
According to Desai, there have been previous promises also in the case of cross-border prisoners, including the Ufa declaration of 2015 and the Heart of Asia Conference in 2016.