Pakistan’s time tested friend and a brother in faith, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), has the largest number of Pakistani prisoners on a foreign land. A former ambassador of Pakistan to the Kingdom puts Pakistani prisoners’ number at over 4,000 as of late 2010. Its arch rival India has at just 761 Pakistani prisoners as per official record presented in Pakistan’s National Assembly in February this year.
In KSA, every month an average of three Pakistanis and may be six to eight South Asians are executed by sword on charges like robbery, murder, drug trafficking and disputes on delayed payments of wages.
In India, punishments for Pakistani prisoners are mainly long-term prison sentences. In recent memory, only one Pakistani, Ajmal Kasab, comes to mind, who has been sentenced to death in India. His crime was well-known and even his family could not deny it. The charges against Pakistanis in Indian jails include espionage, terrorism, illegal and inadvertent border crossings to visa violations such as overstay and travel to cities not mentioned in the permit.
However, Pakistani state, civil society, human rights activists and media do not respond to the Pakistani prisoners' plight in KSA the same way they do to those in India’s jails. Prisoners deserve a universal sympathy whether they are victims of political vindication or injustice. But in Pakistan’s case the prisoners’ cause is fought with a bias and expediency.
Those who follow the news regularly know it for a fact that the ‘prisoners issue’ has always remained as one of top agenda items in Pak-India talks. The state has always described the release or exchange of prisoners between the two countries as part of confidence building measures (CBMs). Once or twice in a three months' time, media reports on a chunk of prisoners' exchange between Islamabad and New Delhi.
The largest ever presence of Pakistanis in KSA prisons has never been an issue on table when Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders meet their Saudi counterparts. Rather, the agenda of Pak-Saudi Arabia official meetings are as secret as meetings between Pakistan’s Army chief and his corps commanders.
The civil society, rights activists and media too consider KSA as a sacred cow when it comes to rolling down heads of Pakistanis off the sword in the so-called holy land. The activists’ silence on flagrant violation of human rights in KSA has approved beheadings of Pakistanis and other humans from the poor nations as a legal and justified action on the part of Saudi authorities. These groups, on the contrary, have limited their activism to Pak-India prisoners and other issues. The campaign for Dr Chishty is the latest example. He has been languishing in an Indian jail for the last 19 years. Good for him and kudos to the activists for raising his case at a higher level.
However, three Pakistani prisoners--Rahmul Wahab, Muhammad Abdur Rehman and Bashir Hussain Afridi--too need support at a very crucial moment of their lives. They are poor Pakistanis who have been convicted on fabricated murder cases in KSA. The three were sentenced to death on March 29, 2011 and if their appeal is not accepted, their heads are to be cut off with a Jallad’s sword in the coming days or weeks.
They have been in Saudi jail since 1999 on charges of killing a Pakistani, a charge they deny but have been forced to admit after going through all sorts of torture in custody. Their relatives have told Pakistani Senators that they paid four million rupees as head money to the victim’s family despite the fact that they were not involved in the murder. The Senators called on the government to get the prisoners released and tell Saudi Arabia not to treat imprisoned Pakistanis like animals. Already, Saudi authorities beheaded one Pakistani in the same case seven years ago. The victim’s brother and uncle were also charged in the murder but were released even after one of them admitted to the killing.
During the last fifteen years in prison, the authorities have taken out their nails several times, plucked out their chest hair, beaten them up with irons, paraded them naked, shocked them with electricity and were forced to confess to the murder of two more women and their kids, whom they have never seen or heard of.