NEW DELHI // Sarabjit Singh always claimed he had consumed a little too much to drink on the night in August 1990 when he accidentally wandered from his home village in Punjab into Pakistan.
If it was indeed a mistake, it might have been a fatal one.
Singh was arrested in Pakistan and accused of being an Indian spy who had helped to organise serial bomb blasts in Lahore in May 1990 that killed 14 people. The next year he was sentenced to death, even though the case against him seemed flimsy.
Briefly last summer it looked like he would be returned to India but that window also shut.
No date was set for the execution.
Last week, Singh was attacked by two death-row inmates armed with iron rods and bricks, apparently to avenge the Lahore blasts.
His lawyer, Owais Sheikh, said Singh, 49, was threatened after a Kashmiri separatist was executed in India. His skull was fractured and he received injuries to his neck and torso.
If Singh dies, his last few days would have played out like his past 23 years: as collateral damage in a diplomatic tussle between India and Pakistan, both mistrustful and forever eyeballing each other over their border. He is in a critical condition in Lahore's Jinnah hospital. His wife, sister and two daughters, who live in India, have been allowed to visit him.
Several news sources reported yesterday that Singh was brain-dead and that the attack on him was planned. One Indian television channel, Times Now, said Singh's doctors were waiting for consent from his family to take him off life support.
On Monday, Indiwa lodged a formal appeal for Singh to be released and transferred home for further treatment. "If his medical condition permits, we could fly him out and give him the best possible treatment," said Salman Khurshid, India's external affairs minister.
But Islamabad said Singh was getting the "best possible care" in Lahore. There was no mention of India's appeal for Singh's transfer.
"The Sarabjit case was never going anywhere. Even when the environment was good, in 2004 and for a few years after that, no efforts were being made to secure his release," said Sushant Singh, a fellow at the Takshashila Institution, a Chennai-based think tank.
"I don't think the level of trust between India and Pakistan has ever been so deep that they could discuss cases such as Sarabjit's. This kind of case has always been a non-negotiable."
When Sarabjit Singh was arrested, the international border - running through the regions of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and Jammu, but not including the Line of Control in the disputed territory of Kashmir - was almost entirely unfenced.
"The international border is almost 100 per cent fenced now," Sushant Singh said. "But there's no standard operating procedure to deal with people who accidentally cross over. It isn't difficult to work towards this, but the problem also is that neither country wants to give up its discretion to arrest people."
Surat Singh, a lawyer practising in India's Supreme Court, has been part of the years-long campaign that lobbied for Sarabjit Singh's release on humanitarian grounds.
Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari's spokesperson assured us in 2009 "that Sarabjit would not be hanged and that he would be released once the situation between India and Pakistan improved", Surat Singh said. "But Pakistan has not lived up to that understanding at all."
Politics has derailed any chance of Sarabjit Singh's release, Surat Singh said. "All these things have a political angle," he said. "My friends in Pakistan tell me Sarabjit was portrayed as the public face of Indian terror there. So a government cannot then release him, because there will be a public backlash."
Another Indian analyst said it was possible that Sarabjit Singh "was an operative, but a low-level one".
"Before satellite imagery, both countries would pay these young men in border villages 3,000-4,000 rupees [Dh200-Dh275] to slip over to the other side and see if, for example, a road was being built, or a bridge had been constructed," the analyst said.
"But if he was an operative, he was definitely a small-level guy, not the sort who would be asked to go blow things up."