The family of Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh, sentenced to death for his alleged involvement in bomb attacks in Punjab province, arrived in Pakistan on Wednesday to meet him and to urge the Pakistan government to release him.
Shortly after crossing the Wagah border, Sarabjit's wife Sukhpreet Kaur and his daughters Swapandeep and Poonam insisted that he was innocent and had been wrongly convicted for the four bomb attacks in 1990 that killed 14 people.
Sarabjit's family, his sister Dalbir Kaur and her husband Baldev Singh have been given seven-day visas to visit Nankana Sahib and Lahore, where Sarabjit is being held on death row at Kot Lakhpat jail.
The Pakistan government claims Sarabjit is Manjit Singh, who carried out the attacks. Sarabjit's family denies that he is a spy, as claimed by Pakistan, and insists he accidentally strayed into Pakistani territory.
Sukhpreet told reporters at Wagah, "My husband is not Manjit Singh. He is Sarabjit Singh, an ordinary farmer who mistakenly crossed the border while he was drunk. He could never do the things for which the cases were filed against him."
"I am convinced everybody will support me in my efforts to get my husband freed. I will be seeing him after 18 years. I never imagined we would be separated for so long and my children would not see him for such a long time," she added.
Poonam, who was only 23-days-old when her father crossed the border, said: "I want to hear my father uttering my name, and I want to embrace him. I want to know what a father's love feels like."
Sarabjit's daughters said they would also try to meet the families of victims of the bomb blasts and try to convince them of their father's innocence. It was not immediately clear when the family would be allowed to meet Sarabjit, though the condemned man's daughters said they wanted to meet their father as soon as possible.
"We urge everyone to help us free our father. We have come to appeal to (President Pervez) Musharraf to help us by freeing our father, as he is innocent. We believe that he will certainly help us," Poonam said.
Swapandeep, who was two-and-half-years old when her father strayed into Pakistan, said: "We have come with the hope that the improved relations between India and Pakistan will have an impact on my father's case and he will soon be released.
Refuting the charges against her father, she said: "He is an ordinary farmer who mistakenly crossed the frontier. At that time, the border was not fenced. He has spent 18 years in jail, more than a life imprisonment term in Pakistan, and he should be released."
Swapandeep said he was both happy and sad on being allowed to travel to Pakistan to meet her father. "I never thought we would meet him in such circumstances. Every year, we pray that he can return to celebrate Holi and Diwali with us," she said.
The family is carrying letters written by various persons to Musharraf, seeking clemency for Sarabjit, as well as letters written to Sarabjit by his friends. Sarabjit's kin have also sought permission to meet Musharraf and other Pakistani leaders to take up his case, but it was not immediately known if such meetings would take place as their visas do not allow them to travel to Islamabad.
Poonam said: "We have evidence that he is Sarabjit Singh, and not the Manjit Singh who carried out the bomb blasts. An innocent man who has spent 18 years in jail should be released. Not just my father, but all Pakistani prisoners in Indian jails should also be released."
Sarabjit's execution was deferred for 30 days by President Pervez Musharraf last month, so that Pakistan's new government could review his case, following an appeal for clemency from the Indian government. Sarabjit was originally set to be hanged on April 1.
Presidential spokesman Major General (retired) Rashid Qureshi has denied media reports that Sarabjit's execution has been postponed for one more month. However, observers said it was unlikely that Sarabjit would be executed just three weeks before the first meeting in May between India's External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and his new Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi, to review the composite dialogue process between the two countries.
Top Pakistani human rights activist Ansar Burney too has filed a fresh petition with Musharraf seeking clemency for Sarabjit. Burney has also pointed out several loopholes in the case against Sarabjit.
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