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13 years later, Sakina waits

By Tim Sullivan in Islamabad
Last updated on: August 26, 2005 23:09 IST
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He was a young father when he left his coastal fishing town for a few nights' work in the Arabian Sea. His daughter was three years old. His wife was waiting for his return.

Thirteen years later Sakina Hussain is still waiting. Her husband, Mohammed, is stuck in an Indian jail, along with four of her brothers who were fishing with him when their boat mistakenly crossed into Indian waters.

They are now among hundreds of civilians-- both Pakistani and Indian-- who have stumbled across the border and been taken prisoner by both countries.

Few are charged with crimes and almost none has a lawyer. While relations between Pakistan and India have warmed in the last year amid their shuffling peace process, neither has done much to win the freedom of their citizens.

So it may be a few months until the forgotten prisoners are released, or it may be more than a decade. And while they are imprisoned, almost no one pays attention.

Over the years, Sakina has repeatedly left Karachi, the coastal city where she now lives in a tiny bamboo shack, to watch as groups of freed Pakistani prisoners cross over the border.

"We went to receive them but got nothing but disappointment and frustration," she said in a choked voice, tears rolling down her face.

In India, the issue flared last week after Pakistan's Supreme Court upheld the 1991 death sentence of Sarabjit Singh, a man whose family insists he is a farmer who accidentally crossed into Pakistan.

The Pakistan government, though, says he is an agent for India's intelligence agency the Research and Analysis Wing and that he has admitted to involvement in a series of bombings.

His terrified wife responded to the ruling by calling reporters to her home, where she posed with her daughters and her husband's sister as she tied a noose, and threatened that they would all hang themselves.

"The responsibility for our suicide will be totally with the Indian government, which is not taking interest," said Singh's sister, Dalbir Kaur.

The threat got things going: politicians organised demonstrations, Indian diplomats contacted their Pakistani counterparts.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has reportedly said he would speak to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

But Pakistani officials have remained noncommittal, insisting this is not a case of mistaken identity, as Singh's family insists, and that only Musharraf can order a pardon.

"Due process of law has been completed," Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mohammed Naeem Khan said earlier this week.

But the Singh case is one rare moment of national attention for an issue that has stretched back to 1947, the year of partition.

Thousands of innocents have passed through prisons on both sides, in miserable crowding, sleeping on concrete floors and sometimes facing torture.

What it's all about, observers say, is clout.

Negotiating the legal system on either side is fairly simple. Prison doors can be opened easily, given sufficient money or connections. But the forgotten prisoners have neither.

"These people are poor and illiterate," said Anees Jillani, an Islamabad-based human rights activist who often works with Indians held in Pakistani prisons.

While both governments have vowed, on occasion, to make it easier to identify and free innocent prisoners, few officials take much interest.

Jillani notes that only lower-level bureaucrats in Pakistan deal with such prisoners, and have no authority to actually get a prisoner freed, or even bring the case to the attention of someone who can.

"This is a low-priority issue," he said.

Even when prisoners are freed-- Pakistan released 589 Indians last year, and India released 182 Pakistanis, according to Pakistani officials-- there are always more coming.

Some are villagers who accidentally cross over the border, while others are arrested for minor visa violations.

But most are fishermen who have strayed across the invisible line that divides control of the Arabian Sea, men lost as a result of rough seas, broken engines or poor navigation. Dozens of the fishermen are children, some as young as 14.

Indian officials say Pakistani jails hold 371 Indian fishermen and 74 other civilian prisoners. Pakistan says it has 379 prisoners in Indian jails, though it's not clear how many are fishermen.

Amid the sudden burst in interest in the prisoners, Sakina Hussain struggles to support her family, cleaning a cattle pen in exchange for a tiny plot for their hut.

Her sons soon will be old enough to work as fishermen, but she's terrified of what could happen.

"I am afraid of losing them too," she says.

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Tim Sullivan in Islamabad
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