Hours after reports emerged that Pakistan was to free Indian death row prisoner Sarabjit Singh, leading to congratulations and messages of gratitude being exchanged, a clarification from the Pakistan president's office dashed all hopes. The man to be released is actually another Indian prisoner named Surjeet Singh who has been jailed for three decades. "I think there is some confusion. First, it is not a case of pardon. More importantly, it is not Sarabjit. It is Surjeet Singh, son of Sucha Singh. His death sentence was commuted in 1989 by President (Ghulam) Ishaq (Khan) on the advice of (then premier) Benazir Bhutto," presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar told PTI.
Pak law minister Farooq Naek earlier in the day conveyed to the interior ministry that Surjeet Singh had completed his life term in jail and ought to be released and sent back to India, Babar said. "Keeping him in jail any longer will be illegal confinement," he added.
Any references to President Asif Ali Zardari in the entire matter were "out of context", the presidential spokesman said.
Surjeet Singh, currently being held in Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore, has been in Pakistani captivity for over 30 years. He was captured near the border with India on charges of spying during the era of military ruler Zia-ul-Haq.
Earlier in the day, Pakistani news channels had reported that President Zardari had converted Sarabjit Singh's death sentence into life imprisonment and directed authorities to release him if he had completed his prison term.
Official sources, too, had said that steps had been initiated for Sarabjit's release. But the Indian high commission had refused to comment on the news.
However, in New Delhi, external affairs minister SM Krishna had even thanked Zardari for the steps purportedly taken for Sarabjit's release.
Sarabjit, 49, too is currently being held at Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore and has been on death row for over 20 years. Sarabjit was convicted and sentenced to death for alleged involvement in a string of bombings in Pakistan's Punjab province in 1990 that killed 14 people. Sarabjit had sent a fresh clemency appeal to President Zardari last month.
Though Sarabjit was set to be hanged in 2008, Pakistani authorities put off his execution indefinitely after former premier Yousuf Raza Gilani intervened.
His family has said he wandered across the border in an inebriated condition and was arrested by Pakistani authorities.
A little over a month ago, ailing Pakistani virologist Khalil Chishty, detained in Rajasthan for nearly two decades on the charge of involvement in a murder, was freed on the orders of India's Supreme Court so that he could meet his family in Karachi. Several reports suggested that Sarabjit's release (that wasn't) could have been a step towards similar treatment for Chishty. But all those reports and suggestions stand pointless now.
In his fifth clemency plea filed on May 29, Sarabjit maintained that his was a case of mistaken identity, since even the FIR was not registered in his name. "I have spent 22 years in the prison for a crime I have not committed," he asserted in his petition to Zardari..
The FIR had named Manjeet Singh for carrying out four bomb blasts in different cities of Punjab, according to the petition. Sarabjit's counsel Awais Sheikh maintained that he had documentary proof that his client was in India at the time of bombings. "Manjeet Singh was indeed a terrorist but the authorities have mistaken Sarabjit for Manjeet," he said.