KARACHI, Oct 27: Legal experts and labour rights activists said on Thursday that hundreds of fishermen from India and Pakistan had to languish in prisons for alleged violation of territorial waters even after completing their sentences thanks to the insensitivity of the two sets of bureaucracy to fishermen`s socioeconomic problems.

Speaking at a press conference at the Karachi Press Club, they said arresting fishermen with their boats and subsequent court trials and imprisonment never proved that any of the fishermen worked as a spy for his respective country.

They lamented that no humanitarian action had been taken during the last many years to end the misery of fishermen and their families.

Retired justice Nasir Aslam Zahid, who is also a member of the India-Pakistan Joint Judicial Committee on Prisoners (IPJJC), said that about 128 Indian fishermen were languishing in Pakistan jails for want of clearance from the interior wings of the two countries.

Those fishermen had been provided with consular access and identified as Indian nationals and now “we are just waiting for an official clearance for their transportation as free men to the Wagah checkpoint and their handing over to the Indian authorities,” the justice said, adding that the real problem in the repatriation of fishermen from the two countries was bureaucratic delay and the governments` reluctance to resolve the long-standing humanitarian issue.

A former senator and federal law minister, Iqbal Haider, president of the Pakistan Fishermen Forum Mohammad Ali Shah and joint director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research Zulfiqar Shah also spoke.

A written statement issued on behalf of the speakers said that off and on hundreds of fishermen returned home but after several years of unjustified detention. Similarly, captured boats were returned only erratically, depriving many of their livelihood, the statement added.

It was further said that in recent months the Maritime Security Agency had accelerated seizure of boats and imprisonment of fishermen in not just its territorial waters but also of those fishing far away from the country`s exclusive economic zone. These actions were in contempt of an agreement between the Indian Coast Guard and the MSA envisaging that the crews be treated humanely and returned as soon as possible.

Justice Zahid, who visited fishermen and families of fishermen in India in September, said that the current seizure of boats and imprisonment of crew members was sad news after what seemed progress made in bilateral trade liberalisation and peace process in recent months.

He said as members of the IPJJC it was now the turn of four Pakistanis to visit Indian prisons and interview Pakistani fishermen there and hold meetings with their India counterparts.

“Our tour as IPJJC members is due since July last, but we are sitting fingers crossed as a green signal is awaited from the governments,” he added.

He said civil society members also wanted to have a meeting with the president and the prime minister on the issue of fishermen and devise a mechanism to stop their arrests on the ground of alleged trespassing and impounding of their boats and equipment.

Mr Haider, a senior supreme court lawyer, said the issues of fishermen of the two sides needed immediate attention for a practical solution, including signing of a treaty on the pattern of what India and Sri Lanka and India and Bangladesh had. Bureaucrats had been adding to the ordeal of the people of the two sides by keeping intact the old system of pre-departure visa, instead of introducing the issuance of visa on arrival at each other`s entry points, he said, adding that efforts should be made to ease the process of peace, and increase people to people relations between the two countries.

The fishing community leader, M.A. Shah, said that vessel seizure must be stopped by security agencies of both India and Pakistan forthwith and all fishermen be returned to their homes. “If Pakistan is to act rapidly, India must promptly accept detained fisher folk as its citizens,” he said, adding that verification must begin with fisher folk families and their organizations, replacing the current prolonged, bureaucratic top-down process that merely accentuates misery.

He said the number of fishermen detained in Pakistan had shrunk to 120 from 450, but in recent months the figure again rose to 250.

Zulfiqar Shah of Piler said that at a time when there was news of progress in trade relations between the two countries, efforts should also be made to remove restrictions on immigration across the borders by workers in search of better livelihoods.

Source: Dawn – 27/10/2011