South Asia

Released Indian and Pakistani prisoners describe trauma

Pakistani paramilitary troops escort freed Pakistani prisoners on Monday
Image caption Many of those released by India are reported to be be in a poor physical and mental condition

As tensions appear to ease between India and Pakistan following a series of diplomatic "goodwill gestures" during the cricket World Cup, both countries have authorised a series of prisoner releases. So what were conditions like for those who were incarcerated and is there any hope for those still detained? The BBC's Alastair Lawson finds out.

On the face of it, the prisoner releases by India and Pakistan should have been a time of celebration. But in reality many of those freed say they have been traumatised by their experiences and bitter that their plight was ignored for so long by their respective governments.

According to Riaz Awan - a cameraman who interviewed those released by India earlier this month - many were mentally scarred by their experiences and in poor physical condition.

"Of the 39 who were released, I would estimate that 31 had no family members to collect them when they arrived in Lahore to be picked up," he told the BBC.

"Some of them were in such a bad mental state that they were talking incoherently. Those who were capable of talking told me of the harsh conditions inside Indian jails.

"They said that they were often given dirty water to drink and that the food served to them was often inedible. Some complained of being violently treated by Indian guards - one man showed me gaps in his teeth from what he said was the result of one such assault."

Mr Awan said that many of the prisoners complained of not having access to proper medical facilities - some even complained that they were suffering from tuberculosis.

Image caption As relations improve, prisoner releases are becoming more commonplace

At least two prisoners told Mr Awan that they were made to remain inside jail even though the terms of their original sentencings had long since expired.

One prisoner - who identified himself only as Yasin from the city of Multan - said that he had been sentenced to six years yet his release was only permitted after serving 21 years.

Another man, Abdul Somad, said that he was sentenced to seven months in jail yet ended up serving more than four years.

"The other point many of those released made very strongly to me was what they said was the complete indifference of the Pakistani government to their plight," Mr Awan said.

"They said that the main reason they were freed was not because of protests made on their behalf in Islamabad but because their cases had been highlighted and exposed by the Indian Supreme court."

'Mentally unsound'

Many of the complaints made by the Pakistani prisoners were echoed by the lawyer representing Gopal Das, the Indian released by Pakistan after serving 27 years on spying charges.

Image caption Both sides say they are eager to promote 'goodwill gestures' such as prisoner releases

"My client wants it to be known that while there was no ill-treatment or torture in the Pakistani jail, the conditions were not good and some Indians have as a result become mentally unsound," Advocate Arvind Kumar Sharma told the BBC.

In a brief statement issued though Mr Sharma, the released prisoner said that while it was wonderful to be back home, if the Indian government had acted sooner, he would have been freed much earlier.

"The government of India has consistently failed to take any initiate on behalf of Indian prisoners lodged in Pakistan jails," Mr Sharma said.

"I think this is because they do not want to admit the involvement of any Indians in spying cases. That is why in many cases they do not even admit that the accused person is an Indian citizen.

"That makes it very hard to secure the release of those still serving in Pakistani jails."

One of those who is still being held is Sarabjit Singh - currently in his 21st year in jail in Pakistan for spying and carrying out four bomb attacks for which he was sentenced to death.

British lawyer Jas Uppal has launched an international campaign to secure his release, arguing that Mr Singh has been the victim of mistaken identity.

"I am extremely optimistic that recent developments will mean that the estimated Indians serving in Pakistani jails and Pakistanis serving in Indian jails will now be freed," she said.

"Sarabjit Singh has already spent 16 years in solitary confinement and is now suffering from various infections including serious problems with his eyes.

"While his family have been pleading with Indian and Pakistani politicians for over 20 years to raise awareness of his case, the fact is that officials in both countries remain apparently unconcerned about his plight."

But things may be about to change. The two countries earlier this year agreed to work more closely in repatriating hundreds of prisoners - especially fishermen - who had inadvertently strayed across the border.

In addition they agreed to provide counsellor access to those prisoners incarcerated for more serious charges such as spying - estimated to total around 100 inmates in both countries.

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