x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Anger in India over prisoner death in Pakistan

Indian government criticised for failing to act after death-row inmate in Pakistan dies a week after being attacked.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) activists pay tribute to Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh, who was accused of spying and involvement in the 1990 bomb attacks in Lahore and Faisalabad in which 14 people died.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) activists pay tribute to Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh, who was accused of spying and involvement in the 1990 bomb attacks in Lahore and Faisalabad in which 14 people died.

NEW DELHI // The Indian government came under heavy criticism yesterday for failing to protect one of its citizens, Sarabjit Singh, a death-row prisoner in Pakistan.

Singh, 49, died in a Lahore hospital early yesterday morning, nearly a week after he was attacked by fellow inmates.

He had been in prison for more than two decades, following a dubious conviction for helping to organise bomb blasts in Lahore in May 1990.

Arrested after wandering over the border into Pakistani territory and convicted as a spy and terrorist, Singh's death underscores the strained relations between India and Pakistan.

Doctors said that Singh, who had slipped into a coma after being assaulted, died of cardiac arrest.

His body was handed over to the Indian High Commission yesterday afternoon, to be flown back to India.

Police in Lahore registered murder charges against the two alleged killers, who are already on death row.

Singh's death provided an opening for India's political opposition to accuse the government of weakness and ineptitude over its foreign policy.

The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, called Sarabjit Singh "a brave son of India who bore his tribulations with valiant fortitude".

"It is particularly regrettable that the government of Pakistan did not heed the pleas … to take a humanitarian view of this case," he added.

The Indian parliament passed a resolution condemning the "inhuman treatment" meted out to Singh, while several parliamentarians chanted anti-Pakistan slogans.

But the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused the government of failing to protect Singh or to ensure his return, and demanded that the Indian ambassador in Pakistan be recalled.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, a BJP spokesman, called Singh's death "a cold-blooded murder" and added: "I am very pained by the gross indifference of the government of India."

On his blog, the BJP leader, LK Advani, described Manmohan Singh as "the weakest prime minister this country has had".

The external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, denied that the case constituted a foreign policy failure.

"This is not the time for the BJP to play politics," he said.

Singh's sister, Dalbir Kaur, accused Pakistani authorities of "back-stabbing" India.

"They have attacked India's emotions by killing my brother," she said.

"I will fight for the other Sarabjits languishing in Pakistani jails."

Surat Singh, a lawyer in New Delhi who practises in the supreme court and had been working on the Free Sarabjit Singh campaign for four years, said that he found it difficult to blame the Indian government for the death.

"We were always assured by the Indian authorities that they were trying their best at the diplomatic level, and we believed them," he said.

"It is Pakistan that has failed in keeping him safe."

Despite the public anger generated in India by Singh's death, Gurmeet Kanwal, an adjunct fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, believed it would cause "no major changes" in relations between the two countries.

"The relationship has been strained for a long time," he said. "There is immense public anger, but that won't reflect in government policy."

However, Bharat Verma, editor of the Indian Defence Review magazine, disagreed, saying that India-Pakistan ties would suffer as a result.

"More and more, people are realising that they cannot trust Pakistan," Mr Verma said.

"There is just no way to appease them, and the [Indian] government's softness is not being appreciated by the people."

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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