Indian Prisoner’s Death in Pakistani Jail Stirs Nationalist Furies

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Indian schoolchildren hold portraits of Sarabjit Singh, who died in a Pakistani prison, in Amritsar, India, on May 2, 2013

Sarabjit Singh, an Indian prisoner on death row in a Pakistani jail since 1991, died on Thursday morning following severe head injuries inflicted by six fellow inmates at Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail. Singh, 49, convicted for spying and being involved in a series of bombings in Lahore and Faisalabad that killed 14 people, had been in a coma since hospitalization on Friday. He died of a cardiac arrest.

The death has shocked India, where family members and human-rights activists have campaigned for his release for years. The family has always claimed that Singh was a victim of mistaken identity.

The Indian authorities have demanded that Singh’s attackers be identified and punished. The Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that the attack on Singh “highlights the need for concerted action by Pakistan to safeguard Indians in Pakistani jails.” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh strongly criticized Pakistan for having failed to “heed the pleas of the government of India, Sarabjit’s family and of civil society in India and Pakistan to take a humanitarian view of this case.”

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Singh’s case — in and out of the news since Pakistan’s former military ruler Pervez Musharraf rejected a petition for clemency in 2008 — took on renewed significance after India in recent months hanged Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani militant who carried out the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008, and Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri convicted of the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. Many feared that Pakistan might hang Singh in retaliation. Singh’s sister Dalbir Kaur told Indian media that Singh’s fellow inmates “were threatening him with dire consequences and [had been] aggressive since the hanging of Afzal Guru.”

For the Indian government preparing to go to the polls next year and already beset with corruption scandals, Singh’s death comes as an added headache. The opposition has accused the government of being unable to “give a strong answer to Pakistan’s inhuman acts.” The Pakistani government has arrested two death-row inmates in connection with the attack, but it too will need to avoid inflaming public sentiment ahead of polls on May 11.

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Analysts feel that a diplomatic impasse between the nuclear-armed neighbors — which have fought three major wars since independence from Britain in 1947 — is not likely. “Sarabjit Singh’s death exposes the larger mind-set in Pakistan, which is essentially anti-India,” says Ashok Behuria, an India-Pakistan-relations expert at the New Delhi–based think tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. “However, on a diplomatic level, it is temporary setback and is unlikely to destabilize the bilateral dialogue process between the countries.”

As a conciliatory gesture, Pakistan is to hand over Singh’s body to the Indian authorities as soon as formalities are completed. However, the spotlight on the contentious issue of the treatment of Indian and Pakistani prisoners in each other’s jails will not fade. “We hope that the fatal attack on Sarabjit will lead to reform,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, adding that reciprocal protection is needed “before, during and after trial.”

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