In a goodwill gesture almost certainly meant to de-escalate tensions between the two countries, the Interior Minister of Pakistan Rehman Malik has announced that all Indian fishermen being held in Pakistani jails will be released soon. He was talking to reporters after a meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in Karachi, where many of those detained are incarcerated in the city’s Malir Jail.
“We have decided to release all Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails and the process of scrutiny to decide how to go about the task will begin soon,” Malik said, adding that he had ordered a review of the cases of all Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails. Other officials from Malik’s Interior Ministry said that all fishing boats seized by Pakistan would be returned along with the fishermen, and that detained fishermen will be asked to sign affidavits stating that they would not violate Pakistan’s maritime boundary in future.
Both India and Pakistan regularly detain fishermen and their boats that stray into their waters- or are claimed to have done so. The tit-for-tat arrests have been going on for years; the situation has been complicated by the longstanding maritime boundary dispute over Sir Creek and the fact that an Indian fishing boat was hijacked by terrorists and used in the Mumbai attack in 2008. Until recently, the peace process that started three years later had eased the situation somewhat. Nonetheless, it is an accepted fact that hundreds of innocent Indian and Pakistani fishermen still languish in jails, sometimes for years, after inadvertently crossing into neighbouring territorial waters. Just two days before Malik’s announcement, 27 Indian fishermen and six boats were detained by Pakistan’s Maritime Security Agency on these grounds.
The recent string of cease fire violations along the Line of Control has heightened tensions considerably between the two countries. Many on both sides of the border will therefore see this development as a welcome step. Exact figures are difficult to obtain, but there are said to be about 250 Indian prisoners in Pakistani jails, and about 300 Indian boats have been seized by that country. India is said to be holding around 125 Pakistani fishermen in its prisons.