750 fisherfolk prisoners languish in Indian, and Pakistani jails: appeals for release falling on deaf ears?

Herman Kumara, the national convener of the National Fisheries Solidarity Organization (NAFSO) in Sri Lanka, strongly opposes the practice of keeping arrested fishermen in jail even after their punishment has been served.

Saman Shafiq Apr 23, 2023
Photo: Sapan News

With almost 750 fisherfolk languishing in jails across Pakistan and India, organisations representing the community appealed to the governments of both countries to release the incarcerated men as a humanitarian act in time for the Eid-ul-Fitr and Budh Purnima festivals.

In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif of Pakistan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, the coalition of organisations wrote: “Close to 750 fisher prisoners in total are languishing in the jails of both India and Pakistan, after they were arrested outside the territorial waters of their country of origin.”

Prolonged detention

Both countries have been arresting fishers from other country for the past many years. These prisoners are charged with violation of the Passport Act of the respective country for trespassing the international maritime border and imprisoned after trial by courts, notes the letter. The sentence for the charged crime is usually a prison term of six months. However, in the case of these fisher prisoners, “their release is never close to being as prompt as their arrest and incarceration are,” says the letter. Many have been in custody across the border since 17 October 2018.

According to records, Pakistan holds 654 Indian fishermen in Landi jail, Karachi, most of whom –– 631 have completed their sentences and are awaiting release. Meanwhile, 118 fishermen from Pakistan are incarcerated in jails across India, including 83 in various prisons in the state of Gujarat. Most of them have also completed their sentences.

These ongoing incarcerations violate Section (V) of the Bilateral Agreement on Consular Access, 2008, which states that “both governments agree to release all persons within one month of confirmation of their national status and completion of their sentences.”

The letter draws attention to the Joint Judicial Committee mechanism instituted in 2008 to help release and transfer fishermen, which has been non-functional since 2014.

The coalition, which includes the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, National Fishworkers Forum (India), South Asian Solidarity Collective and Pakistan India Peoples’ Forum for Peace & Democracy, has appealed to the prime ministers to take an active interest in the issue and ensure that the fishers on both sides are released as a humanitarian act in the holy month of Ramzan in time for upcoming Eid and Budh Purnima festivals.

The letter also urges the governments to return the fishing boats captured along with the imprisoned fishers and emphasises the detrimental effects of the prolonged detention on the arrested fishermen and their families.

“It is unfortunate that fishermen are arrested for crossing the water border ‘inadvertently’ when ideally, they should not have been arrested,” adds the letter. The marine agencies of either country – Maritime Security Agency, Pakistan or Indian Coast Guard – should simply push the fishermen back to their country’s waters if found crossing territorial boundaries, suggests the coalition.

Herman Kumara, the national convener of the National Fisheries Solidarity Organization (NAFSO) in Sri Lanka, strongly opposes the practice of keeping arrested fishermen in jail even after their punishment has been served.

“Political differences are evident at national level, yet the ground realities are totally different,” he told Sapan News in Colombo. “The fishermen cooperate with each other, are helpful when in danger and fish in harmony.”

He urged the governments of India and Pakistan to refrain from treating “innocent fishermen as political prisoners”.

Lahore, Ahmedabad press conference

The coalition held press conferences simultaneously in Lahore and Ahmedabad to highlight the cause and share the contents of the letter with the public.

Several affected families of incarcerated fisherfolk travelled from the coastal region to Ahmedabad to draw attention to their plight.

“My two sons are in Pakistan jail for the last six years. Five months ago, my husband passed away waiting for their release,’ said 50-year-old Valuben Solanki, who had travelled from Gir Somnath district to participate in the press conference. “I work as a labourer to support my family. My sons have not committed any crime. PM Modi must intervene to seek their release from jail.”

Jayaben Baria, another victim, has not seen her 21-year-old son Akshay Baria for over five years.

“My husband met with an accident while he was working on a ship, he cannot even get up from bed. I have not seen my son in five years. I am the sole bread earner for a family of five members and life has never been tougher,” Baria told reporters at the press conference.

Speaking at the event in Ahmedabad, Velji Masani, president of Akhil Bharatiya Fishermen Association and a fishing community leader, noted that “as many as four Indian fishermen died in Pakistan jails in the last year and their bodies came after almost a month of their deaths.” He added that the families of these fishermen live in extreme poverty with no means of subsistence.

Usmangani, a National Fishworkers Forum (NFF) leader, also noted that the fisherfolk “are extremely poor people. Nothing is recovered from their possession except their fishing tools. Maximum sentence they can be awarded is just three months imprisonment. But they spend several miserable years in jail.”

Several organisations have endorsed the fisherfolk appeal, including :

Pakistan Civil Society Forum (PCSF)
South Asian for Human Rights (SAHR)
Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research (PILER)
South Asia Peace Action Network (Sapan)
Association of People of Asia
South Asia Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR)
South Asia Partnership (SAP), Pakistan
Aman Ki Asha
National Fisheries Trade Union
National Fisheries Solidarity Movement
Haqooq-E-Khaliq Party
Pakistan Monthly Review & Research and Publication Centre
Aman Pukar Foundation
The Institute For Peace & Secular Studies
Muttahida Labour Federation
Indo-Pak Soldier’s Initiative

(The author is a digital journalist, visual storyteller, and researcher based in New York who previously working as a journalist in Pakistan. By special arrangement with Sapan)

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