New Delhi/Islamabad: First, much joy. Eight hours later, much dismay as Pakistan corrected reports that Indian prisoner, Sarabjit Singh, who has spent 22 years on death row, was not being released or sent home from a jail in Lahore.
At 1 am, Pakistani officials clarified that it was not Sarabjit, but another prisoner named Surjeet, who was being released because he had finished serving his life sentence. Surjeet Singh, who is from Faridkot, had been arrested when General Zia-ul-Haq was in power for alleged espionage.
"I think there is some confusion. First, it is not a case of pardon. More importantly, it is not Sarabjit. It is Surjeet Singh, son of Sucha Singh. His death sentence was commuted in 1989 by President (Ghulam) Ishaq (Khan) on the advice of (then premier) Benazir Bhutto," said Presidential spokesperson Farhatullah Babar. Any references to President Asif Ali Zardari in the entire matter were "out of context", he added.
Reacting to the development, the government today, referring to Islamabad, said that it hoped that "this contradiction will be looked at sensitively". "We have pushed for Sarabjit's case...since Sarabjit has served more than life sentence, it was that he is going to be released," said Ambika Soni, Information and Broadcasting Minister.
On Wednesday evening, Pakistani media and the Press Trust of India had flashed that Sarabjit Singh, who is from Bikhiwind in Punjab, had been granted a presidential pardon by Mr Zardari. Sarabjit was arrested in 1990 for his alleged role in blasts in Multan and Lahore, in which 14 people were killed. His family has maintained that he was a farmer who crossed the border by mistake, and has spent decades paying for it. Sarabjit filed his fifth mercy petition in May this year.
Foreign Affairs Minister SM Krishna, who had thanked Mr Zardari on the reported move to release Sarabjit, has now made a fresh appeal to the Pakistan government to release the prisoner. "I further renew our request to the President of Pakistan to release Sarabjit Singh who has been in custody for over two decades and is serving death sentence, be released." Among Indian officials, there is considerable debate about whether Pakistani media made a huge mistake, or if the government was pressured by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or the Pakistani army to reverse its decision to release Sarabjit, whose case has prompted campaigns by human rights activists, including Pakistani Ansar Burney. "The Presidency spokesperson spoke to several media houses in Pakistan and he never corrected anyone saying its Surjeet, not Sarabjit. However, eight hours after the news flashing a clarification is issued. There is something wrong in this. There could be some pressure on the Presidency or there is something else," said Mr Burney.
Sarabjit's sister says their family is shell-shocked. "It was a midnight shock for us. We had planned to go with band baaja to Wagah border. A lot of plans were made but we got a rude shock," said Dalbir Kaur.
Those plans were now being made by another family. "My father has been in jail for three decades. His crime was that he crossed over the border. He completed his sentence five years ago, but is still in jail," said Surjeet's son, Kulwant Singh.
Story first published:
June 27, 2012 10:53 IST