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Indian fishermen released by Pakistan

The fishermen, most of whom spent more than a year in prison, were expected to cross the border into India on buses at the town of Wagah on Saturday.

Indian fishermen leave a jail after their release in Karachi. Rizwan Tabassum / AFP
Indian fishermen leave a jail after their release in Karachi. Rizwan Tabassum / AFP

NEW DELHI // Pakistan released 338 Indian fishermen from two Karachi jails on Friday, a rare gesture of good will as tensions between the countries simmer in Kashmir.

The fishermen, most of whom spent more than a year in prison, were expected to cross the border into India on buses at the town of Wagah on Saturday.

That still leaves about 100 Indian fishermen in Pakistani prisons, according to figures from the Indian government. Pakistan claims that 171 of its fishermen are held in Indian prisons.

Nearly all were jailed for crossing over into the other country's waters while at sea.

The release comes as the two nuclear-armed rivals have repeatedly accused each other of violating a ceasefire along the Kashmir border in recent weeks. Five Indian soldiers have been reported killed, along with three Pakistani troops and a pair of Pakistani civilians. The most recent deaths came on Thursday, when the Pakistani military accused Indian troops of carrying out "unprovoked" firing across the border and killing two Pakistani soldiers.

Most of the 338 Indian fishermen who were freed come from Gujarat and Diu, on the country's west coast, close to Pakistan.

Mohammad Rafique, an Indian fisherman who had been in prison for more than six months, criticised Pakistan for arresting him. "There are no lines, signs or signals for borders which cross the water. As a result we drift from one side to the other," said Mr Rafique as he was being released. "We are paying heavily for a small mistake."

Jatin Desai, secretary of the Pakistan-India Peoples' Forum for Peace and Democracy, which lobbies for the exchange of fishermen prisoners, said

some of the fishermen do not have GPS, so they don't know when they cross into Pakistani waters.

"Even when they do, since they're small boats, they are often thrown into Pakistani waters by wind or currents, and they can't anchor in mid-sea."

He added that some boats cross over on purpose because the fishing is better in Pakistani waters.

Typically, the fishermen are charged with entering a country's territorial waters without the appropriate travel documents. Some of them are also held for "stealing" fish.

"The average sentence for such crimes is six months at best," Mr Desai said. "But in both countries, cases can take two or two-and-a-half years to come to trial, so the fishermen end up in jail for a lot longer."

M Mariadasan, a fisherman who runs his eight-man boat Julymol out of the harbour at Vizhinjam, in Kerala, was released from a Pakistan prison after less than a year.

In 2004, when he was living and working in Mumbai, Mr Mariadasan said, he wandered into Pakistani waters and was picked up at sea.

"I had two sons in school at the time," he said. "I didn't even know if I'd ever see them again."

Along with eight other prisoners, Mr Mariadasan spent ten months in a Karachi jail. "We were beaten a little when we were first caught," he said.

In 2007, India and Pakistan formed a joint judicial committee, in which retired judges from both countries visited Indian inmates in Pakistani prisons and vice versa.

The committee recommended unanimously that fishermen prisoners be released. It also recommended that the countries' coast guards practise a no-arrest policy with fishermen who had, by way of genuine mistake, crossed into foreign waters.

But after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks "our work got a lot harder", Mr Desai said.

The ten terrorists who attacked the city, killing more than 160 people over three days, had set out from Karachi by sea, hijacking an Indian fishing boat along the way.

India tightened its maritime security after the attacks, becoming stricter with its arrests of Pakistani fishermen who had strayed into its western waters.

SSubramanian@thenational.ae