Sarabjit gets death in Pakistan - but not from the noose

Sarabjit Singh -  the impoverished family man from a Punjab village, the death row prisoner who languished for 23 years in Pakistan, the man who in death became the latest bone of contention in India-Pakistan ties - who died Thursday after being brutally assaulted by fellow prisoners in Pakistan, was of all these.  

On April 30, 2009, Sarabjit Singh was scheduled to face the gallows but his hanging was postponed indefinitely. Four years and two days later, he died in Pakistan, not from the noose but after being brutally assaulted by fellow prisoners at the Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore.

The 49-year-old was declared dead by doctors in Lahore's  Jinnah Hospital early Thursday, six days after he was attacked on April 26, marking an end to his family's  sustained efforts to save him from gallows and secure his freedom.

Sarabjit was all of 26 years when he was arrested  inside Pakistan August 1990 and later charged with being an Indian spy who was  involved in two terrorist incidents there. He spent the next 23 years in Pakistani prisons and was subjected to torture - the biggest one being the proverbial Damocles sword of death penalty hanging over his head.

A sustained campaign by his spirited sister Dalbir Kaur  in the last few years gave some hope that Sarabjit would avoid the death  penalty. But that was not to be.

His family, especially sister Dalbir Kaur, wife Sukhpreet and daughters Swapandeep and Poonam, approached everyone they could. But Sarabjit was not lucky enough to return to Indian soil  alive.

The family met him briefly in jail April 2008 after a  gap of 18 years. He saw his grown up daughters for the first and only time. This  week, the family met him again - but he had slipped into a deep coma and probably never even knew.

There was a brief, tantalising moment of hope. In June last year, reports said the
Pakistan government announced that he was  being released. However, in a flip-flop, the Pakistani authorities clarified  that it was not Sarabjit but another Indian prisoner, Surjeet Singh, being  released.

"We felt cheated. Celebrations had started in our house and elsewhere. But he was not released," Dalbir Kaur  said.

A resident of Bhikiwind township in Punjab's border belt  of Tarn Taran, 50 km from Amritsar, Sarabjit came from a poor rural family. His  family claimed that he had crossed over into  Pakistan in an inebriated state in 1990 and that he was neither a spy nor a  terrorist. They said that his was a case of mistaken  identity.

But the investigation agencies, especially the police,  in Pakistan termed him an Indian spy and charged him with involvement with  two bombing in Lahore and Multan in 1990 which left 14 Pakistanis dead.  

After being convicted by various courts and awarded death penalty, Sarabjit's  sentence was upheld by the Pakistan Supreme Court and his hanging was confirmed  for March 31, 2009.

Following the intervention of the Indian government, his  execution was postponed to April 30 and thereafter  indefinitely.

Even former Pakistan federal minister and leading human  rights activist, Ansar Burney, had supported the cause for Sarabjit's freedom  based on evidence provided by his family in June  2009.

"Prime facie, Sarabjit's case appears to be that of  mistaken identity," Burney, who was instrumental in getting Indian prisoner  Kashmir Singh released from a Pakistani prison after 35 years in May 2009, had  said.

Sarabjit, who is known as Manjit Singh in Pakistan, was  held guilty of bombings in Lahore and Multan in 1990.

His sister Dalbir Kaur, provided Burney with various  documents - including a copy of the police first information report (FIR) when  he went missing in 1990, his ration card, copy of the voters list, his bank  passbook, driving license and even a video recording of Pakistani national Salim  Shaukat who had admitted to a private TV network that he was forced to give  witness against Sarabjit.

All of those efforts, it seems, went waste.

It will be the final farewell when Sarabjit's body journeys back home.

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