|Recent picture of Sarabjit Singh provided by his lawyer Awais Sheikh
June 26: The Pakistan President’s office late tonight claimed “confusion” over clemency to death-row prisoner Sarabjit Singh and said another Indian prisoner would be released, crushing the relief of Sarabjit’s relatives and prompting his lawyer in Lahore to smell the hand of anti-India forces.
“I think there is some confusion. First, it is not a case of pardon. More important, 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 told PTI close to midnight.
“Any references to President Asif Ali Zardari in the entire matter were out of context,” the spokesperson added.
It was not clear why the spokesperson waited for several hours to issue the “clarification”, although TV channels were reporting from around 6.30pm that the President had commuted Sarabjit’s death sentence to life term.
Around 9pm, PTI reported that external affairs minister S.M. Krishna had thanked Zardari for the steps purportedly taken for Sarabjit’s release.
The dramatic developments came a day after India made public the arrest of a 26/11 suspect who was hiding in Saudi Arabia and who was said to have communicated to the Mumbai attackers from a “control room in Karachi”.
An undated photograph of Sarabjit his family was using in posters to campaign for his release
Sarabjit’s lawyer Awais Sheikh late tonight lashed out at the Pakistan government for “misleading the world” over his release from jail.
“Farhatullah Babar, the President’s spokesperson, is on record saying that Sarabjit will be released and sent back to India soon. How can he now say that it is not Sarabjit but Surjeet Singh who is languishing in jail since 1989?” Sheikh told The Telegraph late tonight over the phone from Lahore.
Sheikh is also handling Surjeet’s case in Lahore High Court. “Both cases are different. Surjeet completed his sentence in 2004 and was in illegal confinement since then. The court took cognisance of my arguments and sought a reply from the Pakistan government on July 9. Sarabjit’s case is that of mistaken identity,” Sheikh said.
According to Sheikh, organisations in Pakistan inimical to the peace process with India could have played a part in the government’s “flip-flop” over the issue.
“I spoke to Sarabjit’s sister Dalbir Kaur just now and she was saddened by the developments. But there is still hope that he too will be released,” Sheikh said.
Dalbir Kaur, who had been running a crusade in both India and Pakistan for her brother’s release, had said earlier in the day she would camp on the Attari-Wagah border post from tomorrow morning.
“Sarabjit could cross over even tomorrow as the orders have reached the superintendent of Kot Lakhpat Jail. I wish I could be outside the jail to hug my brother,” Dalbir Kaur had said over the phone from Bhikhiwind in Tarn Taran.
In the evening, Pakistani news channels had reported that President Zardari had converted Sarabjit Singh’s death sentence to life imprisonment and directed authorities to release him if he had completed his prison term.
As the 49-year-old Sarabjit, accused of engineering blasts that killed 14 persons in Lahore and Multan in 1990, has spent nearly 22 years in prison, he could be released any day now, his lawyer had said over the phone from Pakistan.
Sarabjit, a resident of Tarn Taran in Punjab, had said he had crossed the border into Pakistan in an inebriated state. He had also been claiming that he was not Manjeet Singh. The FIR had named one Manjeet Singh, not Sarabjit.