Convicted Indian spy given one-month reprieve on execution in Pakistan

President Musharraf's reprieve may signal warming relations between the two former British colonies.

Pakistan has given a one-month stay of execution to a convicted Indian spy. Sarabjit Singh, who was convicted of carrying out four bomb attacks in Pakistan in 1990. He was due to be hanged on April 1.

On Wednesday, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf gave Sarabjit Singh a stay of execution until April 30. The reprieve was the latest gesture of magnanimity made by Pakistan over the issue of Indian spies in Pakistani custody.

Last month, President Musharraf pardoned another convicted Indian spy, Kashmir Singh, on humanitarian grounds after he had spent 35 years in prison.

The moves may be a sign of improving relations between the two nations, which have fought three wars and numerous near-wars in the past 60 years. During decades of hostility, India and Pakistan have jailed hundreds of each other's men.

Although a peace process was launched in 2004, the countries remain deeply suspicious of one another. Indian High Commission spokesman Sanjay Mathur in Islamabad told the Associated Press Wednesday that the reprieve for Sarabjit Singh was "informally communicated" to the diplomatic mission.

Earlier in the week, on Sunday, Musharraf had turned down Sarabjit Singh's pleas for mercy, reported Reuters.

In an editorial published on Monday, the Hindustan Times newspaper said that Mr. Singh appeared to be innocent and it urged the Indian government to lobby Pakistan on his behalf.

His family denies he was a spy as claimed by Pakistan and insists he accidentally strayed into Pakistani territory. When Pakistan's Supreme Court rejected his plea for clemency in March 2006, Mr Singh apparently sent a mercy petition to President Pervez Musharraf, seeking release on the grounds that he was innocent and wrongly implicated. Indeed, from all accounts, it does seem he was just a poor farmer who strayed from his border village into Pakistan and became a victim of mistaken identity.

It appears a reprieve for Mr Singh, even at this eleventh hour, could be possible if the Indian government got involved and appealed to Pakistan.

It was widely reported that Pakistan's caretaker human rights minister, Ansar Burney, had played his part in Sarabjit Singh's reprieve. Mr. Burney was largely responsible for the release of Kashmir Singh last month, according to Indian newspaper The Hindu.

Kashmir Singh had been arrested in Rawalpindi in 1973 on spying charges and sentenced to death by a military court. After 35 years on death row, he was freed on March 4. When he crossed the border into India, accompanied by Burney, he was given a hero's welcome. Indian newspapers strongly suggested he was the innocent victim of a grave miscarriage of justice

The mood changed, however, when Kashmir Singh admitted that he had been a spy in early March. He strongly criticized the Indian government for, he said, abandoning his family after his arrest, Calcutta's The Telegraph reported. Singh told journalists he had kept his secret in Pakistan for 35 years.

In Pakistan, anger mounted on March 10 when India returned the body of an alleged Pakistani spy who died in jail.

Khalid Mahmood died on Feb. 12, but his family in Pakistan was told of his death only on March 4 – the day that Kashmir Singh was released and returned to India. His family say he visited India to watch cricket in 2005, where he lost his passport. India says he was a spy.

The Dawn newspaper, in Pakistan, reported claims that Mahmood had been tortured. In a recent editorial, The News International, a Pakistani newspaper, urged both India and Pakistan to improve their treatment of prisoners from each other's country.

The issue that needs to be dealt with is the vulnerability of Pakistanis and Indians to arrest in each other's countries. In the past, those accidentally crossing an often poorly demarcated border have been held for lacking valid visas. Khalid too suffered because he had no travel documents. It is also a fact that both Pakistanis in Indian jails and Indians in Pakistani jails – far from home and without legal help and vulnerable to charges of espionage – suffer terribly. Torture is commonplace in both countries. This is a situation that needs to be taken up as part of the ongoing talks on prisoners between Pakistan and India. Prisoners from both countries must be dealt with as per an agreed protocol and offered swift access to assistance from their missions to avoid them being left at the mercy of hostile police and jail officials. The senseless death of Khalid Mahmood underscores this need more than ever before.
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