Islamabad, Jun 27: What should have been the release of an Indian death row prisoner has turned into an “international embarrassment” for the Pakistan government following the mix-up over the identity of two Indian nationals currently in a Pakistani jail.
Hours after reports emerged yesterday that Pakistan was to release Sarabjit Singh, convicted and sentenced to death in 1990 for alleged involvement in a string of bombings, Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar clarified that authorities were taking steps to free another Indian named Surjeet Singh who was jailed for espionage.
The “case of mistaken identity turned what should have been a moving occasion into international embarrassment”, The Express Tribune said in its front-page report. The website of the Dawn newspaper described the development as a U-turn taken by the government in an “unusual way”.
The Presidential spokesman attributed the mix-up to “confusion” and sought to distance President Asif Ali Zardari from the episode.
Babar said any references to the President in the matter were “out of context”.
However, there was speculation in the social media, especially Twitter, on whether the government had been forced to backtrack on any possible move to free Sarabjit due to pressure from the powerful security establishment.
The Pakistan Army plays a key role in shaping foreign policy, especially relations with India and the US.
“It is unclear how the mix-up took place - whether it was official quarters whose information was mistaken or if the reporting by the media was the guilty party,” said the report in The Express Tribune.
Pakistani TV news channels were the first to report yesterday afternoon that the President had commuted Sarabjit's death sentence to life imprisonment and directed authorities to take steps to release him if he had completed his jail term.
The Presidential spokesman subsequently told at least two Indian news channels and a Western news wire that the government was taking steps to free Sarabjit.
The apparent U-turn occurred at about 11.30 pm (local time) last night, when the presidential spokesman confirmed to PTI that Surjeet Singh, and not Sarabjit, was to be freed as his death sentence had been commuted in 1989 and he had completed his jail term.
News reports about Sarabjit's release had figured in Pakistan's widely watched TV talk shows and Hamid Mir, one of the country's most popular anchors, even described Sarabjit as “India's Ajmal Kasab” - a reference to the lone surviving Pakistani terrorist involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
By this morning, most Pakistani TV news channels had stopped reporting on the mix-up over Sarabjit.
A few channels like Geo News featured External Affairs Minister S M Krishna's appeal to free Sarabjit and all other Indian prisoners in Pakistani jails while others had reports on the dejection among Sarabjit's relatives in India.
At least three newspapers missed the mix-up over the Indian prisoners and even carried reports on their front pages that said Sarabjit was to be freed on the President's orders. Both Sarabjit and Surjeet are currently being held in Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore.
While Sarabjit was accused of involvement in bomb attacks that killed 14 people in Punjab, Surjeet was arrested during the era of military ruler Zia-ul-Haq for alleged espionage.
Surjeet's death sentence was commuted by then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1989 and Pakistani authorities intend to free him as he has been in prison for nearly three decades - far longer than the 12 years that constitute a life term.