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India and Pakistan agree to exchange elderly, mentally challenged and female prisoners

Forward movement on the humanitarian proposals came against the backdrop of bilateral ties strained by cross-border terrorism and fierce exchanges of fire on the Line of Control.

world Updated: Mar 07, 2018 23:34 IST
Imtiaz Ahmad and Jayanth Jacob
Imtiaz Ahmad and Jayanth Jacob
Hindustan Times, New Delhi/Islamabad
The Judicial Committee on Prisoners has been inactive for more than four years.(Representational Photo/Reuters)

India and Pakistan on Wednesday agreed on the exchange of elderly, mentally challenged and women prisoners and the revival of the Judicial Committee on Prisoners, which has been inactive for more than four years.

Forward movement on the humanitarian proposals – first suggested by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj during a meeting with Pakistani envoy Sohail Mehmood in October 2017 – came against the backdrop of bilateral ties strained by cross-border terrorism and fierce exchanges of fire on the Line of Control.

Pakistan’s foreign minister Khawaja Asif said it was his “desire that through such initiatives, Pakistan and India would embark on the road to a comprehensive dialogue and make a conscious effort to de-escalate the extremely vitiated current environment and the situation” on the LoC and international boundary.

In a statement, Pakistan’s Foreign Office announced that Asif had approved India’s proposals on the exchange of three categories of prisoners – “women, mentally challenged or with special needs and those above 70 years of age” – and the revival of the Judicial Committee on Prisoners.

Asif also approved a proposal to facilitate the visit of medical experts from both sides to “meet and examine the mentally challenged prisoners for their repatriation”.

The statement hinted Asif’s decision had the backing of the powerful military establishment as it said the foreign minister gave his approval “after consulting with all the stakeholders”.

Asif also suggested the humanitarian measures should be extended to prisoners above 60 years and below 18 years, and expressed the hope that “India would positively reciprocate Pakistan’s proposals”.

In New Delhi, the external affairs ministry noted Pakistan’s positive response to Swaraj’s suggestion to work for the release and repatriation of the prisoners, which was first reported by Hindustan Times on February 27.

The external affairs ministry spokesperson said the two sides had agreed to resume visits of the Judicial Committee that looks into the issues of fishermen and other prisoners.

The visit of a team of medical experts “would be organised to meet the mentally unsound prisoners” to facilitate their repatriation, the spokesperson said. Officials from both sides will also work out modalities for implementing the understanding on humanitarian issues.

The Judicial Committee on Prisoners, which was formed in 2008 and comprises four retired judges from each side, had done considerable work to identify and help in the repatriation of prisoners being held in Indian and Pakistani prisons. Members of the committee had made their last official visit to Indian prisons in October 2013.

India and Pakistan have not held any substantive talks on normalising their ties since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Swaraj visited the neighbouring country in December 2015. Though the two sides had agreed to launch a comprehensive dialogue during Swaraj’s visit, the process was derailed by a string of terror attacks on Indian military facilities in 2016.

First Published: Mar 07, 2018 22:13 IST