Justice delayed

August 08, 2021

Prisoners repatriated from Sri Lanka await freedom 10 months after arriving in Pakistan

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Syed Wajid Ali, in his early 40s, awaiting release from Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail, has been counting the days. It has been 10 months.

He is among the 41 convicts repatriated to their homeland under a Pakistan-Sri Lanka bilateral agreement. The convicts have been transferred to Pakistan as a result of efforts made by the Pakistani High Commission in Sri Lanka.

They are now incarcerated at the Rawalpindi Central Jail. They are serving various sentences awarded by the courts in Sri Lanka for offences related to drug trafficking. The reevaluation of their sentences is still pending. Under Pakistani laws, most of them may be eligible for immediate release.

The Islamabad High Court has directed the Ministry of Interior to review their sentences at the earliest. According to their families and lawyers, most of them were used as drug mules by narcotics smugglers in the two countries.

Among those repatriated from Sri Lanka is Muhammad Waseem Iqbal, who had been a helper at a local hotel in Lahore 10 years ago. Lured with promises of a lucrative job abroad, Iqbal was tricked into carrying narcotics. He was arrested at Colombo airport. The persons who had obtained the visa for him and motivated him to go had hidden the drugs in his luggage.

Most of the repatriated convicts have similar stories to tell. They belong to very poor families and were trapped by drug peddlers. In recent years, similar tactics have also been used to trap Pakistanis wishing to travel to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah.

Sajid Ali says his brother, Wajid Ali, used to be a taxi driver 10 years ago.

“An agent contacted Wajid and offered him a job in Thailand. They took Rs 200,000 from my brother to arrange a visa and air ticket. He was very excited when he left for Thailand,” Sajid Ali says.

“Some days later, Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) personnel visited our home and told us that Wajid had been arrested in Colombo for smuggling narcotics. We were in a shock to hear this. Our father had a stroke and died. One of our uncles, a lawyer, had been trying to bring Wajid back but did not live to see the day,” Sajid Ali says.

Last week, Wajid’s mother finally met him after 12 years. “He was crying while he told his mother about his ordeal,” his brother tells The News on Sunday.

Zainab Bibi, who used to sell clothes in Karachi, was also trapped with promises of a brighter future in Colombo. She was sent with a group of people by a similar network.

She too was arrested at Colombo airport and awarded life imprisonment. Talking to The News on Sunday, her counsel, Muhammad Kabir Hashmi, says Zainab is eligible for immediate release.

Mehboob Khan, 51, has a wife, two sons, and three daughters. He used to work as a truck driver when he left for Sri Lanka on February 17, 2010. Khan was arrested after drugs were found in his luggage. He was then shifted to Negombo Jail on judicial remand. Two years later, he was transferred to Welikada Jail to serve his sentence. He has now served nine years post-conviction. The right side of his body has been paralysed after he suffered a stroke. He is currently at Adiala Jail.

On November 4, 2020, 41 Pakistani prisoners were repatriated from Sri Lanka to serve their remaining sentences at home where their families could visit them. This was the first repatriation in seven years under a bilateral Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) signed by the two countries in 2004. The repatriation was a result of rigorous diplomatic engagement with the friendly nation. The Ministry of Interior, the then special assistant to the prime minister on overseas Pakistanis and human resource development Sayed Zulfiqar Bukhari, and the Pakistani High Commissioner in Sri Lanka Muhammad Saad Khattak were credited with bringing them back.

According to the latest figures, there are nearly 10,000 Pakistanis languishing in foreign jails, many of them under trial. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Greece, Afghanistan and Oman are the five countries having the largest number of Pakistani prisoners in their jails.

The high commissioner, on receiving their custody, advised them to refrain from crime in future to lead a better life with their loved ones on reaching Pakistan. “The life at a prison is not a very satisfactory way of living, especially when you have to suffer for your crimes far away from your motherland and families for such a long time,” he said.

In December, during Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s visit to Colombo, Sri Lanka had sought Pakistan’s assistance in its fight against drug trafficking. 39 Pakistanis are still incarcerated in various Sri Lankan jails.

The inmates have individually and collectively moved the Islamabad High Court which then directed the Ministry of Interior to evaluate the sentences of the repatriated prisoners.

The Transfer of Offenders Ordinance 2002 stipulates that enforcement of a sentence for any offender transferred to Pakistan is to be governed by the laws of Pakistan. A court of competent jurisdiction can examine the compatibility of sentences of such offenders and make those compatible with a sentence awarded for the same crime in Pakistan.

The IHC had concluded that these prisoners were tried in a foreign legal framework; were unable to comprehend the judicial proceedings; were represented by state-appointed counsel and resultantly given harsher punishments as compared to the penalties prescribed under Pakistani laws.

The petitions moved by the prisoners, with help from some human rights groups, claim that the sentences awarded by the courts in Sri Lanka are not compatible with the sentences for the same offences under Pakistani law. It has been submitted that where the sentence of a person is incompatible, the court of competent jurisdiction can pass an appropriate order in this behalf. The sentence for the offence of drugs trafficking in Pakistan is contained in Section 9 of the Control of Narcotic Substances Act, 1997, that carries a maximum sentence of capital punishment. However, the sentence is dependent upon the quantity of narcotics recovered from the convicts. It was contended that in almost all cases, the quantity recovered from the petitioners did not entail life imprisonment or capital punishment under Pakistani laws. In most cases the sentence provided in Pakistani laws has already been served and they can be released forthwith.

“In Sri Lanka, the sentences for drug trafficking are severer than in Pakistan. An honest evaluation of their sentences (as per compatibility of law) can help free the poor prisoners exploited for drug trafficking,” says Barrister Syeda Jugnoo Kazmi, one of the lawyers for these prisoners.

The prisoners have since filed a contempt petition against the MoI before the IHC for failing to comply with the directions in the stipulated 60 days. The court has held two hearings so far and has given the respondents more time to appear before the court and submit a reply.

The world marks August 10 as the International Prisoners Justice Day. The day is observed on the anniversary of the 1974 death of Eddie Nalon, a prisoner who bled to death in a solitary confinement unit at Millhaven Maximum Security Prison in Vancouver, Canada, after the emergency call button in his cell failed to work.

According to the latest figures, there are nearly 10,000 (9,972) Pakistanis languishing in foreign jails, many are under trial. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Greece, Afghanistan and Oman are the five countries having the largest number of Pakistani prisoners in their jails.

Wajid’s mother is still waiting for her son to come home. She believes in his innocence.

The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at vaqargillanigmail.com

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