KARACHI/Islamabad - Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Sunday ordered the release of 151 Indian prisoners ahead of his historic visit to New Delhi to attend Narendra Modi’s swearing-in as premier.
Resultantly, 150 fishermen and one more Indian national were released on Sunday from Karachi and Hyderabad. They were languishing in jails for violating country territorial waters.
Islamabad’s move – to free all those fishermen whose status as Indian nationals has been confirmed by the Indian authorities – was welcomed by India as a good gesture ahead of the inauguration Monday. Last August Pakistan released some 340 Indian fishermen on humanitarian grounds.
Modi’s invitation to Sharif to attend the ceremony has been widely seen as a bold diplomatic statement that he intends to improve strained ties between the nuclear-armed rivals.
“The prime minister has instructed that 151 Indian prisoners currently detained in Pakistani jails and 57 Indian fishing boats in Pakistani custody should be released on Monday,” , said a press release by PM’s Office. In accordance with PM’s instructions, the prisoners would be handed over Monday morning to the Indian authorities at Wagah/Attari border, it said.
India’s foreign ministry said Pakistan had notified New Delhi of its intention to free the prisoners as a “goodwill gesture” to coincide with the swearing-in. “It’s always good to welcome back our prisoners who have been in custody for some time,” foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told CNN-IBN television network.
According to information shared by the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), 59 Indian citizens, including 58 fishermen, were released from Malir jail of Karachi at around 8am while 92 others came out from Nara Jail of Hyderabad on 12am. They left jail premises in the buses to reach Wagah border on Monday, from where they will be handed over to Indian authorities.
This is the first time in many years that any side has decided to release the boats of these fishermen and it is Pakistan that has decided to take the lead in this direction. “Pakistan has always held that the issue of prisoners in our respective countries is a humanitarian one and (it) should be taken in that spirit,” the PM Office said. There are 521 Pakistani prisoners in India, including 168 fishermen, and Pakistan hoped that they too would be able to return to their loved ones in Pakistan soon.
Modi invited Pakistan PM Sharif and other neighbouring heads of government from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to Monday’s swearing-in. The Pakistani PM’s attendance will be a first in the history of the South Asian neighbours, which have fought three wars since independence in 1947 and remain bitterly divided over the disputed region of Kashmir and other issues.
South Asian authorities frequently arrest fishermen from neighbouring countries for straying into their waters. The absence of properly defined maritime borders and of technology to determine ships’ location adds to the problem. Efforts by various fishing communities to resolve the problem have ended in failure. The fishermen often languish in jails even after serving their terms because fulfilling official paperwork to get them home can take time.
Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) chairperson Muhammad Ali Shah appreciated the Pakistan government’s initiative to release such a large number of detained fishermen of India and expressed the hope that the new BJP-led government of India will take similar decision to send Pakistani fishermen home to take a step ahead for strengthening the relationship.
Shah said this kind of approach will help in lessening tension between the two countries, especially in land and sea border territories, which have become hunting ground for border security forces of the two countries to catch fishermen of the other side and put them in jails for years.
Around 200 Pakistani fishermen are in Indian jails, including 68 untracked fishermen, who had gone missing and their parents feared they might have been in Indian jails. About 780 Indian boats are in Pakistani custody, while 150 Pakistan boats are with Indian authorities. However, Pakistan government has also released 57 boats belonging to 150 fishermen who were released on Monday.
Last year in August Pakistan had released 337 Indian fishermen from the Malir and Central jails in Karachi as a goodwill gesture. Another 15 Indian fishermen were released as a goodwill gesture on Hindu festival of Diwali.
PFF demanded both the governments of Pakistan and India settle disputes over the sea territories, as fishermen fall victim whenever uncertainty creates problems between the two neighbouring governments. It also demanded return of all fishing boats, as releasing the fishermen without their boats devastates them economically.
Shah said now when the new BJP-led government is in the process of swearing in and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been invited to attend the oath-taking ceremony, there is need to resolve the issue of Sir creek, which is a common demand of the representative organisations of poor fishermen of both the sides. He expressed the hope that the two governments will take the matter of demarcation of sea territory on priority and stop detaining fishermen from the open sea.
He said the government authorities should understand the realities that the arrested fishermen are mostly sole bread winners of their families and in their absence their families back homes face difficulties. The fishermen caught on different occasions also suffer medical problems in jails. In recent past, prisoners in Nara jail were shifted because some of them were detected as patients of TB. One Indian fisherman Arwind died a month ago in Nara jail, Hyderabad. The situation of Pakistani fishermen detained in India is almost the same.
Modi welcomes Pak, Lanka move
Monitoring Desk adds: Following the decision of the Pakistan and Sri Lanka governments to release Indian fishermen from jail, Indian prime minister-designate Narendra Modi took to twitter to welcome their move and express his happiness.
“I welcome the step by Sri Lanka and Pakistan to release our fishermen. I welcome our fishermen brothers back home,” Modi tweeted, reported Indian media.
Pakistan has released 151 Indian fishermen and their boats as part of its goodwill gesture ahead of the swearing-in ceremony of prime minister-designate Narendra Modi led new government at the Centre today.