An attack on a high-profile Indian prisoner who has been on death row for over 20 years in a Pakistani jail has ignited tensions. Islamabad is accused of not doing enough to protect Sarabjit Singh .
Sarabjit Singh was sentenced to death 16 years on espionage charges. He had been arrested in 1990 after bomb blasts in the Pakistani city of Lahore and Multan that killed 14 people. His family has always insisted he is innocent, saying he was a famer who crossed the border into Pakistan while drunk.
Last week, he was reportedly attacked by four or five fellow inmates in a Lahore's Kot Lakhpat jail. He suffered critical head injuries and is now fighting for his life in hospital.
The attack has triggered sporadic protests across India. People have taken to the streets of Jammu and Amritsar demanding stiff measures be implemented to make sure no more Indian prisoners in Pakistani jails will be subjected to "atrocities."
Some agitators even burned effigies of Pakistani politicians, as well as Pakistan's national flag.
Critics say the attack on the 49-year-old Indian has to do with Pakistani domestic politics.
"On the eve of Pakistan's elections, this is clearly a conspiracy to kill Sarabjit Singh," Pradeep Khanna, a protester from the opposition right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told DW. "Why now? This is going to inflame tensions and is well planned by Pakistan."
The BJP has also alleged that the Pakistani government failed to offer sufficient protection to Sarabjit and claimed no action was taken despite the knowledge that the death row prisoner had been threatened several times.
On Monday, his family said it wanted him to go back to India. "He is not safe in Pakistan," his sister Dalbir Kaur told DW from Lahore where she had gone with three other family members. "I appeal to the Indian government to step up the measures and bring my brother back to India."
PTI reported on Tuesday that there were unconfirmed reports Singh had been declared brain dead and that Dalbir Kaur, who has spearheaded the campaign to free her brother, was returning to India to seek advice on his treatment.
Joint judicial committee
India and Pakistan have frequently clashed over the basic humanitarian issue of the way prisoners on either side of the border are treated.
Sarabjit Singh's relatives have been to Lahore more than once to appeal for his release
An Indian Foreign Office report submitted to India's Supreme Court late last year noted that there were as many as 262 Pakistani prisoners in Indian jails facing deportation. Some 53 of them, including women and children, had requested political asylum in India.
According to the law ministry, there are almost 800 Indian nationals in Pakistani jails, of which 582 are fishermen.
"The release of Indian prisoners from Pakistani jails has been one of the priorities of the government and it has been consistently taking up the issue with Pakistan at all appropriate levels. We have to work harder on this," former Indian Foreign Minister S M Krishna told DW.
"It is clear that the security of prisoners not just in Pakistan but across South Asia needs to be revamped," Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told DW. "It is deplorable. There has to be a better understanding of the conditions of prisons and how these prisoners are housed. This is vital."
Earlier this year, an Indian national who was about to complete a five-year prison term for alleged involvement in espionage died in Lahore. There were reports alleging that he had been “tortured” by prison staff before his death.
"Besides the legal protocol on deportation, both India and Pakistan have to sort out the basic issue of security and safety of respective prisoners. I just hope this latest incident is a wake-up call," Suhas Chakma of the Asian Centre for Human Rights told DW.
An India-Pakistan judicial committee on prisoners comprising four retired judges from each side has been set up to recommend steps on humane treatment and the speedy release of prisoners.