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Jailed Fishermen Await Thaw in India-Pakistan Relations

by Zofeen Ebrahim, 7 November 2009

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Inter Press Service, 4 November 2009

Karachi, Nov 4 (IPS) - Almost 400 Indian fishermen continue to languish in Pakistani prisons despite having completed their prison terms. Their release has been hampered by tensions in the relations between their country and neighbouring Pakistan.

"When I go back, the whole village will come out to welcome me," said Jayees Babu, 17, smiling dreamily. "There will be dance, music and food…it will be celebration time!" added Visal Ram, also 17.

Having completed their prison terms, the two teenage fishermen and their seven compatriots, are biding their time inside the Youthful Offenders Industrial School (YOIS), in Karachi’s Central Prison, serving sentences of seven to 11 months.

"I don’t know when I’ll be released," said 17-year-old Chetan Sanji. His friend and fellow inmate, Depes Bawa—looking away to hide his emotions—come from the same village, Gujrat.

In addition to the nine boys, there are 385 adult Indian fishermen who have completed their respective prison terms at District Jail Malir in Karachi.

Ram recounts the incident that brought him to his present ordeal.

"It was nine o’clock in the evening. I was tired from the day’s work and was peacefully listening to music," he said. "I was actually listening to Pakistani songs," he added, as if the irony just struck him. Soon he heard someone shouting, "Don’t move, you’re under arrest," he continued. "My first instinct was to run and cut loose the rope attached to the anchor, but then two burly men in uniform jumped into the boat and held a gun to my temple." recounted Ram of the night of his capture nine months ago.

His crime—straying into Pakistani waters.

Capturing small fishermen from both sides and impounding their boats has been a regular practice of the maritime security agencies on both sides of the border for the last 20 years.

"The penalty can be anywhere from one to two years, but they [prisoners] are rarely released after that," said Mohammad Ali Shah, of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), a non-governmental organisation working for the rights of the indigenous fishing community. "These poor men bear the brunt of the love-hate relationship between the two countries and remain in prison for years."

One Pakistani fisherman, for instance, has been languishing in an Indian jail for over 15 years. "Not only is his family living in abject poverty, his mother has cried herself blind!" said Shah.

Notwithstanding their heart-rending stories, the two governments appear indifferent to the poor prisoners’ plight, he added. The fishermen’s only means of livelihood has been destroyed and their dependents have been thrust further into destitution. Consider, for example, the cost of each boat—an equivalent of between 3,000 and 3,600 U.S. dollars on either side, said Shah.

In friendlier times, poaching fishermen never had to worry about getting caught. "Till 1965, almost two decades after Pakistan obtained its independence [in 1947], the fishermen of the two countries were never apprehended," recalled Shah.

From 1988 onwards, they were captured but released on exchange basis—"ours against theirs," said Shah.

"It was fairly organised. The boats were released, they were repaired and our maritime agency would formally hand them over to the Indian coast guards," said Shah. The sea route was also the closest and most cost-efficient to reach their villages.

But for some years now, boats straying into the other side’s waters have been impounded and never returned. Apprehended Indian fishermen, after being released, have to leave through the land route and travel all the way to Punjab province from Sindh.

Shah estimated that there are over 250 Indian boats in Karachi’s dockyard. "The maritime security agency auctions off boats, sells the nets and the equipment. Still, a large number of boats remain in a state of disrepair. "Many cannot even be repaired," he said. He knows of no Pakistani fisherman using an Indian boat. "But I’ve seen some coast guard pickets using Indian boats!"

The practice of reciprocating prisoner has stopped owing to strained relations between the two countries.

Indian and Pakistani fishermen conduct their trade differently. While Pakistani fishermen share their boats with one another and apportion their profits equally among themselves, most Indian fishermen work on a monthly basis and are hired by boat owners, who serve as middlemen. Being in jail means loss of their monthly income.

For many small Pakistani fishermen, no boat means no catch. They buy their boats either on installment or by taking out huge loans.

For Babu and his eight other companions, it is their young lives, not just their boats, that are being taken away from them by being behind bars. "I had never even seen an Indian prison, or for that matter a police station," said Bawa.

Ram rues the cruel treatment he and his companions suffered in the hands of police, who he claims treated them like "hardened criminals when many others, he said, have committed "serious crimes like dacoities [Anglicised version of the Urdu word ‘dakaiti’, which means ‘armed robber’] or even murders."

Babu said they were only "trying to earn an honest living" while the other inmates "were trying to make an easy buck through their criminal activities!"

He and his companions share their prison cells with 26 other youth in conflict with the law. He said routine verbal onslaughts are triggered by the slightest provocation, usually from Pakistani boys that are "far more in number."

Recalling the early days of their capture, Arwin Vasram, 16, said he used to cry a lot when he first landed in prison, "but now I’m much stronger."

Ram cannot say the same of 14-year-old Kalu Ramzi, the youngest among the nine boys who was apprehended along with his father and five others. "For three months, he just cried and cried and wouldn’t eat, watch TV or play with us, he said. "We all felt so sorry for him."

Ramzi vows never to return to fishing once free. "I’d rather work in the fields!" he declared. This is not a choice for Baana Bhagwan, 17. "You can always work in the fields, but that will not be enough to feed so many mouths," he said.

He said working as farm hands means a meagre 1,800 India rupees (21.64 U.S. dollars) a month while they made as much as 5,000 to 6,000 Indian rupees (107 to 128 U.S. dollars) on their fishing boats.

Vasram said fishing helped his family foot his ailing father’s medical needs. Babu’s family was able to marry his sister off by using a portion of his earnings to give the needed dowry. He was also able to buy them a television set and a DVD player from his income. Still, like Ramzi, he plans to quit fishing. "I shall open up a small tea shop when I go back," he said.

But for now, no one knows when they can get out of prison.

"I can’t say when we will get the release orders from the government," said Ashraf Nizamani, superintendent of the Malir jail. He admitted it was wrong to hold a prisoner beyond term. "Undue delays only burden us further; our prisons are already overcrowded." One thing is certain, though. "They will only be able to leave when India reciprocates and sends our fishermen home," declared Mohammad Asif, assistant superintendent at YOIS. "We treat them as guests, but the way our fishermen our treated in Indian prisons is inhuman! Why isn’t anything written about those atrocities?" he countered.

In his 23 years of service, Nizamani has seen long delays in the release process. "It’s not that the government or the Indian High Commission is not aware of these fishermen’s [prison term]. But the Pakistani government is not making any move toward a reciprocal prisoner release, he said.

At times, it is simply lack of money that keeps many jailed fishermen from returning home, said Nizamani. "Unless some philanthropist comes forward, many poor prisoners remain detained for lack of money to buy their way back home."

Until strained relations between the two South Asian states are firmly resolved, the fate of 394 Indian prisoners agonising in Pakistani cells will remain uncertain.

(END/2009)