By S. M. Hali
Sarabjit Singh is an Indian national imprisoned in Kot Lakhpat Jail, Pakistan since 1990. He was convicted by the Pakistani authorities for his involvement in 1990 serial bomb blasts in Lahore and Faisalabad that killed 14 people. Sarabjit claimed that he was a farmer and a victim of mistaken identity, who strayed into Pakistan from his village located on the border, three months after the bombings when drunk.
He was sentenced to death in 1991, but his hanging has been repeatedly postponed. So far five mercy petitions have been filed on his behalf, in which Sarabjit maintains that he has served twenty two years of prison term for a crime he is not guilty of.
On the night of 28 August 1990, Sarabjit was arrested by Pakistani border guards in an inebriated state on the Pakistan-India border near Kasur. Sarabjit and his supporters maintain that the arrest was a case of mistaken identity, and that he was only a poor farmer who was drunk and had strayed off the border. His wife Sukhpreet Kaur claims that he left to plough his fields near the Wagah Border on August 28, 1990, but never returned.
He was arrested on the charges of illegally crossing the India-Pakistan border. But after eight days, the Pakistani police charged him with being involved in the 1990 terror blasts at Faisalabad and Lahore. The authorities alleged that he was Manjit Singh and had been responsible for the 4 blasts which killed 14 people, and had been arrested while returning to India after carrying out the bombings. He was accused of working for the Indian intelligence and was viewed as a terrorist in Pakistan. He was convicted of spying and carrying the bomb blasts and was handed the death penalty.
In 1991 Sarabjit was given the death sentence under the Pakistan’s Army Act. His sentence was upheld by the High Court and later by the Pakistan Supreme Court. The Supreme Court dismissed his petition to review his death sentence in March 2006 as Sarabjit’s lawyers failed to appear for the hearing. On 3 March 2008, the erstwhile President Pervez Musharraf rejected his mercy petition.
Since his conviction in 1991, several mercy petitions have been filed by Sarabjit’s legal representatives. The fifth petition was filed on 28 May 2012, along with 100,000 signatures collected from India. It urges Pakistan to reciprocate the Indian decision to release Pakistani octogenarian virologist Khaleel Chishty on humanitarian grounds. But so far the mercy petition has not been approved by Pakistan.
In March 2008, Sarabjit’s family went to Pakistan when his hanging was to be carried out. They met several prominent Pakistani politicians including the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to appeal for his release but to no avail. On 23 August 2005, Sarabjit’s case was taken up in both the houses of the Indian Parliament, where the government was asked to take necessary action for his release.
Indian External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh took up Sarabjit Singh’s case with the Pakistan High Commissioner Aziz Ahmed Khan and urged him to convey Delhi’s hope that Islamabad would treat the matter as a humanitarian issue.
In June 2012, Bollywood actor Salman Khan came forward to seek the support from people and the media for the release of Sarabjit. He started an online petition from his NGO Being Human in support of Sarabjit’s release.
In 2009, the British lawyer Jas Uppal started an online campaign “freesarabjitsingh.com” to highlight his case and request human rights group to intervene on his behalf. Awaish Sheikh, Sarabjit’s present lawyer from Pakistan, has been supporting the campaign and has provided his services free of charge to Sarabjit.
In April 2008, a group of Pakistani students organized a march, seeking withdrawal of all official moves to pardon Sarabjit. In December 2012, an aggressive protest against Sarabjit Singh was observed in front of the Lahore Press Club, in which Indian flags were burnt by Islamists radicals.
On 26 April 2013 at about 4:30 pm, he was attacked in the Central Jail Lahore (Kot Lakhpat jail); allegedly by six prisoners with bricks, sharp metal sheets, iron rods and blades. He was admitted to the Jinnah Hospital with severe head injuries in a critical condition. He is in a coma, with a broken backbone and has been placed on a ventilator. According to his sister, the attack on Sarabjit was pre-planned and that the jail authorities were involved. His wife, sister and two daughters were allowed to visit him in the hospital. Sarabjit had been threatened after Afzal Guru was executed in India in February 2013 over his alleged role in the 2001Indian Parliament Attack case.
On 29 April 2013, India appealed to Pakistan to release Sarabjit on humanitarian grounds or at least allow him to be provided medical treatment in India. Appeals by lawyers were also filed with the Supreme Court of Pakistan to send Sarabjit for medical treatment to the UK or outside Pakistan to save his life.
It needs to be understood that the case of Sarabjit Singh is not of an ordinary criminal, who merits mercy on humanitarian grounds. Sarabjit Singh has been convicted of conducting heartless terror attacks in which innocent precious human lives were lost. Irrefutable evidence was presented by the prosecution, which sealed his fate. Indeed the callous attack on him at the Lahore Jail is a failure of the jail authorities, who should have provided him with full protection. However, he is being provided with the best of medical attention; his family members were provided visit visas to meet him but either releasing him on humanitarian grounds or sending him abroad for medical treatment is out of question.
Before submitting mercy appeals for Sarabjit Singh, India needs to examine its own track record. Hundreds of Pakistanis suffering incarceration in Indian jails have either succumbed to the torture and harsh treatment meted out to them or they have lost their mental balance. Judiciary is free and fair in Pakistan; we should let the legal process take its course in the case of Sarabjit Singh.