Pakistan's midnight U-turn on the release of Sarabjit Singh, suspected to have been orchestrated by its powerful military establishment, has not gone down well with India even as New Delhi Wednesday renewed pitch for the death row prisoner and awaited clarity on the issue.
"I have seen media reports about the impending release from imprisonment in Pakistan of Surjeet Singh, son of Sucha Singh. I welcome this decision and further renew our request to the president of Pakistan to release Sarabjit Singh," External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna told reporters here.
Sarabjit Singh has been in custody for well over two decades and is serving a death sentence for his alleged complicity in a string of blasts in the Punjab province in 1990.
Krishna's statement came after Pakistan's volte face about releasing Sarabjit Singh Tuesday night. On June 26, the Pakistani media carried reports of Sarabjit getting a presidential pardon. However, Islamabad clarified around midnight that it was not Sarabjit but Surjeet Singh, his fellow inmate at Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore, who would be released.
Admitting confusion over the issue, Krishna said he has also seen media reports and stressed that India was awaiting official communication from the Pakistan government and a report from the Indian High Commission in Islamabad on this issue.
Krishna, however, renewed request to the Pakistan government to take a lenient and humanitarian view and also release Sarabjit Singh. "As you are aware, the government of India has consistently urged the government of Pakistan, on several occasions, to take a sympathetic and humanitarian view in the case of Sarabjit Singh," he said.
"I also appeal to the government of Pakistan to release all Indian nationals who have completed their prison terms and request the release of all other Indians who are serving jail sentences in Pakistani prisons for petty crimes," he said.
Senior ministers also backed Krishna in requesting Sarabjit Singh's release on humanitarian grounds. Pakistan should look at the case of death row prisoner Sarabjit Singh sensitively and compassionately, Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni said in Thiruvananthapuram. Pakistan claims that Sarabjit Singh, who is known as Manjit Singh there, was involved in staging four blasts in Lahore and Multan in 1990, which claimed 14 lives. His family however, maintains that Sarabjit, a resident of border town of Bhikhiwind, had strayed across the border in an inebriated state in August 1990.
Surjeet has been in Pakistani custody for over 30 years. He was captured near the India-Pakistan border on charges of spying during the era of military ruler Zia-ul-Haq and was on the death row too, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1989.
"I think there is some confusion. First, it is not a case of pardon. More importantly, it is not Sarabjit. It is Surjeet Singh, son of Sucha Singh. His death sentence was commuted in 1989 by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan on the advice of then prime minister Benazir Bhutto," presidential spokesperson Farhatullah Babar was quoted as saying by Geo News.
Pakistan's U-turn on the release of Sarabjit Singh, a long-standing Indian request, has not gone down well with India and has cast a shadow over the talks between Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai and his Pakistani counterpart Jalil Abbas Jilani in New Delhi July 4-5.
While the reasons for Pakistan's flip-flop are not clear, informed sources pointed out that Pakistan's powerful military establishment may have vetoed the government's decision. The Pakistani media, too, have been extremely critical of the flip-flop, with media outlets terming it as an "international embarrassment" for the Pakistan government.
Home Minister P. Chidambaram said it was difficult to figure out how and what happened. "I cannot say why they appeared to put out that Sarabjit is the person who is being released and then they flipped and said that it is Surjeet who is being released," said Chidambaram in Thiruvananthapuram.