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Detained fishermen - A political catch

by Shujauddin Qureshi, 26 July 2010

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The News on Sunday, 25 July 2010

Taking cue from the Indian Supreme Court, civil society here has decided to make a plea to the apex court to release Indian fishermen

For Kantilal, it was unbelievable that after four-year imprisonment in the Malir District Jail of Karachi, he was talking to his uncle, an influential political figure and President of ruling Congress Party in his home district in Gujarat, India. The 33-year-old Kantilal, an Indian fisherman and captain of his boat, Dakshini, was arrested by the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency in 2006 along with his four fellow crew members while fishing in open sea near the disputed Sir Creek. Since then, he has no communication with his family. Kantilal said he had written letters to his family through the jail post, but has not received any reply.

A leader of all the Indian inmate fishermen in Malir Jail, Kantilal opted to talk to his uncle first instead of speaking to his wife or three children just to request his uncle to use his political influence to get him released from this jail. His subsequent call at his home phone number, unfortunately remained unattended.

Awarded a six-month sentence by a local magistrate three years back, Kantilal is still languishing in Malir Jail because both India and Pakistan have stopped exchange of each other’s fishermen after the Mumbai terrorist attacks in late 2008. A total of 582 Indian fishermen are stuck in four jails of Sindh at Malir District Jail (Karachi), Nara Jail (Hyderabad), District Jail (Badin) and District Jail (Naushehro Feroz). Majority of Indian fishermen are detained without any trial, while others who were sentenced have completed their terms, but are still waiting for release due to absence of any mechanism to release the ‘enemy-country’s’ citizens.

About 150 Pakistani fishermen are also detained in various jails of India waiting to be released in a ‘tit-for-tat’ deal. Under Pakistani laws, prisoners who have completed their terms could be detained only for the next three months. However, after expiry of that period, either the prisoners should be freed or the government has to seek permission from the Supreme Court review board for further detention.

Former Supreme Court judge chief justice of Sindh High Court, Justice (Retd) Nasir Aslam Zahid, expressed his astonishment over how the Supreme Court review board could give extensions for years.

It is practically impossible for a jail inmate to talk to his relatives on telephone as no system is in place for such a communication in the well-guarded prisons of Pakistan. But Kantilal and six others were fortunate enough to talk to their families after many years.

A delegation of some civil society organisations visited the Malir District Jail to get the signatures of Indian fishermen on the Vakalatnama to be used for a petition being filed in the Supreme Court of Pakistan to release the detained Indian fishermen who have completed their terms in jail or are kept in the jails without any trial. Civil society organisations of both India and Pakistan decided in April this year to approach the Supreme Courts of the respective countries for release of detained fishermen.

The Supreme Court of India had already given a directive on March 8, 2010, that 17 Pakistani prisoners, who have completed their jail terms in India, be released forthwith. On the basis of that almost revolutionary judgment, Pakistani civil society has decided to make a plea in the Supreme Court of Pakistan to order the release of all Indian fishermen. The Sindh Minister for Prisons, Haji Muzaffar Shujrah, had granted special permission to the civil society organisations of Pakistan to visit Malir Jail to get signatures of Indian fishermen on legal documents.

Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), a representative organisation of Pakistani fishermen, along with Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) and Legal Aid Committee headed by Justice (Retd) Nasir Aslam Zahid, plan to file a petition in the Supreme Court of Pakistan through senior lawyers and Co-Chairperson Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Syed Iqbal Haider.

The jailer at the Malir Jail was initially puzzled when one of the visiting delegates, Karamat Ali, Executive Director PILER, requested him to allow some fishermen to talk to their families in India on his international roaming cell phone. The jailer did not find any excuse to refuse the request, but said he had to get the permission from his incharge, who was kind enough to grant it.

It was a moving scene when about six detained Indian fishermen were speaking to their family members in Gujarati, Katchi and other native languages to share their plights. Twelve fishermen had signed Vakalatnamas, but some of them even did not have telephone numbers of their relatives.

Although these fishermen are getting some facilities including medical help and food according to jail manuals, none of them have any facility to communicate with their families. There is no mention of telephonic conversations with the family in the decades old Pakistani jail manuals. Many had even not received counselling which is mandatory for foreign inmates. These fishermen, most of them illiterate, can only send letters through inland postal systems, but it is often an inefficient mode of communication as their letters do not reach their destinations. "We need clothes, chappal, soaps and hair oil," said Daya, another fisherman when asked about their immediate needs.

Although some civil society organisations provide clothes and other necessary items to Indian fishermen, these items sometimes remain insufficient.

It is a pity that both Pakistan and India have been arresting each other’s fishermen from non-demarcated borders in the waters of the Arabian Sea. "Whoever gets the chance to find the enemy country’s boats in the open sea while fishing, they arrest the fishermen and confiscate the catch and the boats," said Mohammad Ali Shah, Chairman of Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum. Even if the fishermen are released after a deal between the two countries to get political mileage, the boats are not handed over to owners. This causes huge economic loss to the fishermen of both countries.

The fishermen’s organisations of both India and Pakistan have been demanding settlement of the disputed Sir Creek, clear demarcation and stopping arrest of each other’s fishermen. But navies of both the neighbouring countries are still engaged in arresting each other’s fishermen to settle their scores.

Moreover, he said, this convention, which has been signed and ratified by both Pakistan and India, states: "Coastal State penalties for violations of fisheries laws and regulations in the exclusive economic zone may not include imprisonment, in the absence of agreements to the contrary by the States concerned, or any other form of corporal punishment." In cases of arrest or detention of foreign vessels the coastal state shall promptly notify the flag State, through appropriate channels, of the action taken and of any penalties subsequently imposed.

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Waiting for their due release.