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A joint tribunal may just work

India and Pakistan must safeguard the interests of civilians caught in the geopolitical crossfire.

india Updated: May 02, 2013 22:57 IST
Hindustan Times

The best monument to Sarabjit Singh, the Indian who died after 22 years in a Pakistani jail because of an assault by fellow prisoners, would be to find an institutional solution to the hundreds of individual Indians and Pakistanis who stray across the contested border, find themselves incarcerated with almost no means of redress and become hostage to the whims of geopolitics. Singh’s was a particularly egregious case given the accusations that he was an Indian saboteur, the seeming inability of the Pakistani authorities to decide whether to declare him guilty or innocent, and the brutal manner of his death. However, it is well-known that hundreds of Indian and Pakistani fishermen are imprisoned for straying across the maritime border between the two countries. Dozens of villagers mistakenly cross the border and land themselves behind bars. Indian diplomats are often quoted as saying how they find Indians prisoners in Pakistani jails whom officialdom did not know existed.

There is an assumption that the bulk of these innocent prisoners of politics are eventually released, often as part of amnesty packages announced during high-level summits. But these are infrequent events. Many of these prisoners stay in jails for years on end. Others languish there for their entire lives, their existence unknown to their governments and their location a mystery to their own families. It is time to find a way to end this humanitarian disaster, to end a callous acceptance that these prisoners are the collateral damage of the great subcontinental rivalry. India and Pakistan should consider setting up a joint tribunal, staffed by professional judges from both sides, whose job would be to quickly decide on the fate of these unfortunates. It is safe to say that the vast bulk of these people would simply be sent back home. There would be a handful of cases — and it is likely Singh’s case would have been among them — that would prove difficult to resolve. But fast tracking the release of the hundreds of others would alone make such a proposal worthwhile. The Pakistani judiciary has shown itself to be remarkably independent of its military and its political system — as former dictator General Pervez Musharraf is finding to his discomfort — and there is no reason to doubt its professionalism. Even in the most controversial cases, such a court would help push a government to prove that a person is a spy or terrorist or not.

This could prove an effective confidence-building measure in its own right, regardless of its humanitarian gain. It is exactly the sort of legacy that would best honour the death of Singh and should be seriously considered by the political leaderships as part of the Indo-Pakistani agenda, an agenda that addresses the aam aadmi rather than merely the strategists and the businessmen.

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