Published On: Mon, May 6th, 2013

Nuclear but acephalous societies

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By Dr. Syed Nazir Gilani –

Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore failed in its responsibility to 49 year old Sarabjit Singh of village Bhikhiwind, Punjab, (India)  and Kot Balwal in Jammu erred to allow a revenge attempt to endanger the life of  52 year Sannaulah Ranjay of village Daluwali, Sialkot (Pakistan). Singh had been in prison for the last 23 years and Ranjay for the last 17 years. Sarabjit Singh succumbed to his injuries and Sannaulah Ranjay is still fighting for life. In a civilized society the system of justice allows people to engage in mediated combat with each other via words and representations in courts.

Acephalous Societies

It appears that Kot Lakhpat and Kot Balwal are two correctional institutions situated among acephalous societies. Regardless of the merits of Sarabjit Singh’s case, he lost his life. In the current political mistrust between the two countries, it entails a bad news for the prisoners held in both countries. There could be no dispute with the common sense approach that the attack on a prisoner waiting on a death row could not be possible without a plan. It could not be defended as a sudden feud between two prisoners. The kind of material used to assault him and inflict life taking injuries, could not be brought into the prison without a third party support. Bricks, sharp metal sheets, iron rods and blades used in the attack could not be stored in a cell unless someone among the jail authorities had consented or coerced the other inmate to unleash a vicious attack on Sarabjit Singh.

Our Condolences

Our condolences go out to Sarabjit’s sister Dalbir Kaur, his wife Sukhpreet Kaur, daughters Swapandeep and Poonam, son-in-law Sanjay and the people of Bhikhiwind. It would be an error of judgment to draw any parallel between any two prisoners. More so, during the times when Sarabjit Singh was arrested the methods of arrest, means of interrogation  and the scales of justice on either side of the border in India and Pakistan, have remained suspect on a number of counts.

Mistaken Identity

The violation of human rights cases and in particular the disappearance of prisoners from Adiala jail in Rawalpindi and the cases of other disappeared people (all Pakistan nationals) pending before the Supreme Court of Pakistan, remain an example that the manner and behaviour of the various agencies involved has come under the sharp scrutiny of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

There has been a continued claim that Sarabjit Singh was a victim of mistaken identity. The atmosphere of trust between India and Pakistan in 1990 was at its low and arrests of innocent people living near the border were a routine. His family have continued to maintain that Sarabjit was a farmer and had strayed into Pakistan from his village located on the border, three months after the bombings.

Proper Defence

There is no convincing evidence that Sarabjit Singh received proper legal defence during his trial under the Pakistan’s Army Act. There does not appear any evidence that he had any consular access from the Indian High Commission in Islamabad. His death sentence was upheld by the High Court and later by the Pakistan Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court dismissed his petition to review his death sentence in March 2006 as Sarabjit’s lawyers failed to appear for the hearing. In fact the appeal had been dismissed by the Pakistan Supreme Court for non-prosecution only because of lack of interest by his former lawyer.

The integrity of such trials in such vitiated circumstances in 1990/1991 could not be regarded fair and impartial. The courts in Pakistan at that point had not graduated in holding the scales of justice and in competence, independence and impartiality as we find them today. The press and public would not have remained as interested in the rights of a non-Pakistani as much as we find them today.

Shaukat Salim’s Retraction

In April 2008 the key prosecution witness Shaukat Salim retracted his early statement given in the court against Sarabjit Singh. Salim’s father and other relatives had been killed in the attack. In court Salim had provided testimony that Sarabjit was the one who had planted the bomb but later on accepted that he had done so under pressure from the police.

Sarabjit Singh was initially arrested for illegally crossing the border and after eight days the police implicated him in the terrorist bombings. A British lawyer, Jas Uppal, who campaigned for his release pointed to several loopholes in the trial. In particular, his identity was never verified or proved in court and no forensic evidence was provided at his trial to link him to the bomb attacks, the trial was conducted in English, whereas Sarabjit did not speak or understand English, and an interpreter was not provided, there were other serious questions over the fairness of his trial, including allegations that he was tortured in custody and forced to confess, the trial was fast-tracked and the main witness repeatedly changed his version of events.

In June 2012, the President of Pakistan decided to release Sarabjit but a few hours later, the release order was revoked explaining that the prisoner to be released was Surjeet Singh and not Sarabjit Singh.

Miscarriage of Justice

The retraction of the statement by prosecution witness and the fact that there was a non-representation at the trial in the Supreme Court, make a convincing case that there has been a miscarriage of justice. The conviction should not only have been reversed, but Sarabjit Singh was entitled to compensation in accordance with law.

100,000 Signatures

A number of mercy petitions had been filed by Sarabjit’s legal representatives. The fifth petition was filed on 28 May 2012 along with 100,000 signatures collected from India. But none of the mercy petitions had been approved by the President.

Physical Integrity

Although Sarabjit Singh was subject to a loss of liberty in accordance with law, he continued his right to retain his physical integrity. He had to be treated with all dignity and should not have suffered any degrading and inhuman treatment. The manner in which items used to brutalise and kill him, were available to another inmate in the prison, mean that Sarabjit Singh was subjected to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Every individual who is deprived of his liberty has the right… to humane treatment during the time he is in custody. In this case Sarabjit Singh was entitled to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.

Chain of Killings

The events and circumstances which have conditioned the expression of this senseless violence in Kot Lakhpat and Kot Balwal jails entail a potential for chain killings in the future. A dangerous example of revenge killing and failure of a correctional institution to remain responsible for the physical integrity of a prisoner, has to be looked into in the best interests of other prisoners held in prisons in both the countries.

It would be a great disservice to the full regime of human rights and in particular prisoner’s rights, if we make an unwise effort and draw any parallel between the manner in which States have behaved in the cases of Afzal Guru, Sarabjit Singh and Sannaulah Ranjay. We need to highlight the basic human right to a fair trial, in civil and criminal matters and that all other rights depend upon the proper administration of justice. The character of the tribunal, in terms of its independence and impartiality is the litmus test. A judge must not be subject to the control or influence of the executive or the legislature.

The mood levels in India and Pakistan are very disturbed. We have to remind each other that, “while seeking revenge, dig two graves, one for yourself”. Common and unfortunate people like, Sarabjit Singh and Sannaulah Ranjay should not be regarded as a threat to national security but need to be given the benefit of being ‘there at the wrong time’. India and Pakistan are responsible nuclear states and should not appear to act as acephalous societies.

Author is London based Secretary General of JKCHR – NGO in Special Consultative Status with the United Nations.  He is on UN register as an expert in Peace Keeping, Humanitarian Operations and Election Monitoring Missions. He could be reached on email

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