On 6 July, I was once again at the Central Jail. I had to wait for a long time. I was filled with curiosity and anxiety. Here was a man who had been in solitary confinement for the last 19 years. In this duration, he had seen his family only once — from behind the bars. Oh my God! What would be his mental and physical condition? My body was shaking; a wave was passing through my back bone that made me numb.
At last the moment came and I was told to follow the jail staff — two officers and three policemen. The last gate of the jail opened slowly. It was so huge that two elephants could have entered easily. As we slowly walked to the barrack, gooseflesh formed and explosions ran through the nerves. A single moment seemed to have engulfed a whole life. I had forgotten everything else and sank in the present moment. Time and again, I looked towards the sky and whispered, “Oh My God! Show Mercy.” The Assistant Jailer glanced at me as if he could understand my feeling. It was like a scene from the movie “Veer Zara” where an Indian spent a long term in a Pakistani jail and in the end was found to be innocent.
It was the first time that I had conducted such a case. For a human rights worker who had been associated with arts and literature, the mysterious milieu of the jail building was overwhelming. We could see some prisoners clad in their typical uniform, walking here and there. Walking in the corridor, we took a turn and lo and behold, a tallish man whose personality captured my attention at once was standing behind the bars.
I could not believe that this man had been in solitary imprisonment for the last 19 years. I asked the jailor “Is this Sarabjit Singh?” The man took out his hands from behind the bars and said, “Ji.” (Yes).
For a human rights worker who had been associated with arts and literature, the mysterious milieu of the jail building was overwhelming. We could see some prisoners clad in their typical uniform, walking here and there. Walking in the corridor, we took a turn and lo and behold, a tallish man whose personality captured my attention at once was standing behind the bars. I could not believe that this man had been in solitary imprisonment for the last 19 years. I asked the jailor “Is this Sarabjit Singh?” The man took out his hands from behind the bars and said, “Ji.” (Yes).
_ Awais Sheikh
He embraced the iron rods instead of me as a gesture of love. The jailer and his subordinates sat at a distance to allow us to communicate. There was some humanity at last. The barrack was a small room which contained a fan, an exhaust fan, a kerosene stove and some utensils. A mattress was lying on the floor with a pillow and a sheet. The rods were thick but one could shake hands through them. The jail had a neat and clean look. Was this a regular cell? I would ask this the next time I come here, I thought.
Sarabjit was staring in the air. I hurriedly took out some cash and handed it to him. “I will keep coming. One day I shall take you with me.” He said, Inshallah!
When I came back to the Superintendent’s room, the press and TV channels were present there. The Superintendent looked very peaceful and was trying to be courteous. I was thinking that in his heart, he must dislike the situation. The police and the jail staff usually abhor the press as a rule. As soon as I entered a journalist said, “You are looking very happy.” I said, “Yes, there is some hope now.” Addressing the Superintendent I said, “Thank you for looking after my client. His health is good and thank you for allowing me to present him food and other items personally.”
When I came out of the jail, I found a large number of media personnel with their cameras ready. I said, “I am the second person in 19 years who has seen Sarabjit Singh. He is in good health. I am thankful to the jail staff for looking after him. This is a good example; India should also treat Pakistani prisoners in the same way.”
The journalists were not ready for the ‘peace argument’. They said, “Are you Pakistani or Indian? Sarabjit has killed so many people and you are presenting him fruits and almonds. You are fighting the case of an Indian terrorist. You are an Indian agent.” I said, “I am a world peace ambassador. It does not matter if the case is fromPakistan or India or any other country. I am a professional advocate. Protecting my client is my professional obligation. The journalists talked about Ajmal Kasab and I told them that Sarabjit was innocent. After that I read the appeal of my client to the President of Pakistan. I showed them his signature. Some of them made videos of it. I announced that I would send this appeal on the 8 July. Some of the journalists were losing their temper. When I was leaving, some of them were shouting, “He is doing this for cheap publicity.” I could hear him say ‘Boycott! Boycott!’
But I was not afraid of anything. There are many other prisoners in the jails of India and Pakistan. Many of them have committed minor mistakes. Sometimes some of them are freed to gain political mileage. Interestingly, there are also fishermen who are accused of crossing the other countries limits. Where is the boundary line drawn in the ocean? This was the situation in which I was appointed the legal council of Sarabjit. The previous lawyer, Rana Hameed, gave some impression to the media that Awais Sheikh cannot be made the lawyer at this stage. All this was bringing Sarabjit in the limelight. The next day, I went to the office of Rana Hameed. This lessened his anger. The case was at a very critical turn, and I did not want to spoil it because of the displeasure of Hameed Sahib.
The sister of Sarabjit was in constant communication with me. She told me that Rana Hameed Sahib was talking ill of me in the Indian media. I had received all relevant papers of the case from the Advocate on Record (AON). Rana Hameed was also influencing the Indian High Commissioner to stop my coverage. With the passage of time, the media began to listen to me. My position was getting to be clear both in India and Pakistan gradually. I was receiving e-mails and telephones from all over India. The international media was also telecasting my interviews and praising my efforts. R. K. Sharma from the Indian High Commission called me and invited me to Islamabad. Gradually, the High Commission was accepting me as the advocate of Sarabjit. The day 8 July, 2009 was full of activity. Though the Pakistani media was ignoring my efforts, there was great hype in the Indian media. This was the day when I sent the mercy petition to the President of Pakistan. The anchor person told me that he had never seen any advocate in Pakistan receiving so much of honour.
The next day after the interview, the landlord of my office came to me and asked me to vacate the office. He had been threatened by some people that his building will be harmed because of me. I tried to persuade him and eventually he allowed me to stay. I was asked not to invite any TV crew to my office. After a few days, my board was also removed from the office. I was under immense pressure and fear. Many rumours about me were ciculating in the city. My family was also living in a state of constant anxiety.
At that time, India was pressing for the arrest of Hafiz Saeed, who was considered to be the main character behind the Bombay attacks. In those days, two or three dead bodies of Pakistanis who had been in jails in India, reached Pakistan through the Wagah Border. I was told that India was sending these bodies and you are trying to rescue a terrorist. At the same time an Indian citizen, Kashmir Singh, went to India after serving imprisonment of 26 years in Pakistani jails. He was given a warm farewell by the Pakistan Government. Soon after crossing Wagah Border, he gave an interview to the Indian media saying, “I was an Indian spy. My duty was to spy inPakistan.” His statement poisoned the relationship of the two countries. The two governments had to face criticism from their public. At that time I had to face great pressure for supporting Sarabjit.
(To be continued……)