On May 3, Jetindaera Arjanwara, a 21-year-old Indian national who had been in Pakistani jails since 2013, was repatriated to his own country. Though his release was much delayed, he is fortunate enough to have had his case picked up by Pakistani and Indian civil society activists as well as journalists who advocated for his repatriation on humanitarian grounds. The Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy also played a significant role in drumming up support but the one whose efforts made the biggest impact was barrister Haya Zahid, who works on a government-mandated committee to inspect sanitary conditions in Pakistani jails.
As reported by the Indian Express, he suffers from sickle cell anaemia, a blood disorder that requires regular blood transfusion. Apparently, he had left his house in the Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh as a teenager over a domestic dispute. He came all the way to Rajasthan and, while walking across the desert, inadvertently crossed over into the Sindh province of Pakistan. He was brought to the Hyderabad juvenile jail.
There are several cases of Indians and Pakistanis who land up in each other’s countries across poorly-marked boundaries without the intention to violate the law. Many of these happen to be fishermen. They spend years languishing in jails without having their identities confirmed, getting access to legal representation or contacting their families.
Aaghaz-e-Dosti, an India-Pakistan peace initiative founded by Delhi-based activist Ravi Nitesh, has been filing RTI applications since 2014 to obtain lists of prisoners exchanged between the governments of India and Pakistan. The lists provided by India’s Ministry of External Affairs have been subsequently published to aid families, lawyers, activists, journalists and researchers interested in these records.
Aaghaz-e-Dosti published the latest set of lists on April 10. Unfortunately, the data released is rather stingy. It mentions only the names of the prisoners and their parents – in most cases, fathers, which is not surprising in South Asia. There are no details about the cases themselves – the nature of the crime, arrest date, expected date of release, etc. If these lists are accurate, as on April 10, there were 58 Indian civil prisoners and 107 Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails, and 250 Pakistani civil prisoners as well as 94 Pakistani fishermen in Indian jails.
Nitesh says, “The list revealed that there are so many people on both sides who have been undertrials for years – and they have spent more time in jails than defined in their sentence. People are in jails despite the completion of their sentence only because their nationality identification was not confirmed. There are prisoners whose names are not known as they are deaf and dumb. All these things point to the insensitivity of governments on both sides.”
In an exclusive interview with The Wire, barrister Haya Zahid discusses the case of Jetindaera Arjanwara, who she made sure did not become yet another prisoner on one of these lists, awaiting his freedom at the hands of lethargic bureaucracies.
Stories of Indian prisoners in Pakistan, and of Pakistani prisoners in India, rarely make it to the mainstream media. How did you manage to learn about Jetindaera Arjanwara’s case?
I am a secretary to a provincial government-led committee notified for the welfare of prisoners. The committee was established in 2004 by the Sindh government to look out for the welfare of prisoners and provide legal aid and assistance. It is led by Justice Nasir Zahid who was a member of the joint Indo-Pak committee on prisoners. As part of the committee, my job is to visit multiple prisons, monitor living conditions and facilitate the provision of legal services for those neediest. It was during such a visit to the Hyderabad juvenile prison in 2014 where I met Jetindaera.
What kind of interactions did you have with Jetindaera after that, and what about his story made you go out of the way to help him?
When I first met him, he was introduced to me, handpicked by the superintendent in Hyderabad who raised his case as a deserving one for media attention and lobbying by civil society. He said the boy’s sentence was almost up, and we should undertake efforts for his speedy repatriation. Fast forward to 2018, when I was visiting Malir Jail in Karachi – I found him in the medical ward there. He had not gone back all these years. I just immediately felt responsible for not having done enough after first meeting him in 2014. I knew we had to do something – or I had to do something. The fact that I had met him all those years earlier just motivated me into raising my voice louder this time.
It appears that prison authorities were sympathetic to his situation because of his poor health. How was your experience with them?
Every official I met was sympathetic towards him – from medical officers in prisons to constables and superintendents to civil servants in the bureaucracy in Sindh in the home department. Everyone wanted him to go back home safe and sound. Not a single person raised any conspiracy theories around him nor questioned his motives for running away to Pakistan.
What are the bureaucratic hurdles that came up in the process of repatriating him?
The lack of coordination and follow-ups between departments, which is the case everywhere, was the main hurdle. But we were consistent and kept raising the noise around him with the media – journalists in India, and here (in Pakistan), those in the mainstream news channels, and of course celebrities like Shehzad Roy. But it seemed like consular access was granted twice to him, yet his status was a question mark. I did not understand the delay on that end from the Indian high commission.
When was the last time you met Jetindaera or spoke with him? What was it like for you?
I last met him in February/March in 2018. After that, my colleagues visited him to show him a video of his mother and siblings. We found the clip on social media and hurried to show it to him. We didn’t know when he last saw them, so wanted to provide him with that closure and opportunity. He broke into tears, I am told.
Jetindaera is lucky that he found support in you. How many Indian prisoners are currently in Pakistani jails, and what are the crimes they have been jailed for?
I cannot comment on this at the moment.
What are the rights and protections available to Indian and Pakistani prisoners in each other’s countries? Are these available in reality, or only on paper?
I think, to a large extent, they are provided with food and clothing and basic essentials but legal representation is a gap. Consular access, the moment they are arrested, is needed.
What are the steps that governments and civil society organisations in India and Pakistan can take to ensure that these prisoners are not held hostage to the political tensions between both countries?
Every year, lists are exchanged between the countries of prisoners. Internment periods are extended regularly for those who have completed their time. However, their nationality issues are not taken care of. I think, the moment they are arrested, the high commissions must engage and start their work. This would save time.
If you had to change any three things about the living conditions of these prisoners, what would those be?
They must be given some form of access to communicate with their loved ones back home. Special dietary requirements should be made available to respect religious sentiments and preferences. Access to lawyers must be made available, by which I mean free legal aid.