Did India lose an opportunity to bring Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh back home from Pakistan’s Kot Lakhpat jail?
Highly placed sources in the ministry of external affairs reveal that the issue of releasing Sarabjit on humanitarian grounds was not taken up at the highest level, especially in the meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari in April last year.
While Zardari - who had a one-on-one meeting with Manmohan Singh, before his visit to the dargah in Ajmer - took up the issue of Pakistani prisoner Khalil Chishty, India did not press for Sarabjit’s release.
In what is now being seen as a costly miss, India did not even try and negotiate a swap-deal for Chishty and Sarabjit. Chishty, a Pakistani virologist sentenced to life in a murder case was finally granted clemency by the Indian state on humanitarian grounds.
Pleas to release Sarabjit on humanitarian grounds were taken up at many levels, including at the level of former minister for external affairs, SM Krishna and recently by home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde when he met his counterpart Rehman Malik in Delhi in December last year.
“The only way to have got Sarabjit released was through a trade-off with Chishty but we seem to have let that opportunity go,’’ said G Parthasarathy, former high commissioner to Pakistan.
Highly placed sources confirmed to Hindustan Times that while Zardari took up Chishty’s case at the highest level, Sarabjit’s release on humanitarian grounds did not come up for discussion even though his mercy petition was pending with Zardari at the time. Zardari was instrumental in postponing Sarabjit’s execution in 2008.
Sarabjit’s family was in fact hopeful that if Zardari had signed off on a pending proposal to commute the Indian’s death sentence to life, he could have also been released from jail as he had already served his 14-year sentence.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took up Sarabjit’s release with President Musharraf, earlier in 2005, but the real window of opportunity opened up only in 2008, after Zardari became President.
Zardari, under pressure from elements in the Pakistani establishment, may ultimately not have been able to sign off on a pardon, but as sources in MEA revealed, “a trade-off was never attempted.”