As many as 44 Pakistani prisoners currently in Sri Lankan jails have been repatriated to complete their remaining jail term in the country.
The return of these prisoners came under a 2004 agreement on the transfer of offenders between Pakistan and Sri Lanka. According to the agreement, transfers are allowed in cases where sentences exceed a minimum of six months. A chartered flight of the Pakistan International Airlines carrying these prisoners landed in Islamabad on November 4.
This is the first repatriation in seven years under the bilateral prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) signed by the two countries in 2004. In a statement issued after the prisoners reached Pakistan, Justice Project Pakistan commended the efforts of the Ministry of Interior, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development Sayed Zulfiqar Bukhari, and the Pakistani High Commissioner in Sri Lanka Muhammad Saad Khattak for their commitment and dedication to protect the best interests of overseas Pakistanis in foreign jails.
The Transfer of Offenders Ordinance, 2002 was issued on August 3, 2002, allowing repatriation of prisoners whose sentences exceed six months of imprisonment. In January 2004, Pakistan and Sri Lanka signed the bilateral prisoner transfer agreement. In August 2012, 20 Pakistani prisoners, including two women, shifted to Pakistan to serve their remaining sentences. In September, 72 Pakistani prisoners repatriated from Sri Lanka and Thailand. In March 2015, Pakistan suspended the prisoner transfer treaties with other countries. In November 2017, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that local laws apply to convicts transferred to Pakistan.
In June 2018, Supreme Court of Pakistan directed the government to speed up the process of repatriation of Pakistani prisoners from Sri Lanka and other countries. In July 2018, the Sri Lankan president announced lifting 42-year moratorium on capital punishment for drug offences
In February 2019, the Supreme Court of Pakistan directed the government to restore prisoners transfer agreements. In November 2019, the National Assembly’s sub-committee on overseas Pakistanis and human resource development decided to discuss prisoner transfer agreements in detail.
The repatriation is a result of rigorous diplomatic engagement with the friendly nation. Pakistanis imprisoned abroad can be repatriated through bilateral agreements to transfer prisoners, allowing them to serve their remaining sentences closer to their families.
According to official numbers, 87 Pakistanis were imprisoned in Sri Lanka for various crimes. There are now 43 prisoners still incarcerated in the island country. Currently, there are more than 11,000 Pakistanis imprisoned abroad. Pakistanis imprisoned abroad are at the mercy of local courts without access to lawyers, impartial translators, or consular assistance from Pakistani diplomatic missions. These Pakistanis face the harshest punishments in foreign courts due to their lack of understanding of and assistance with the legal process, incapability to communicate directly with the court, and inability to produce evidence from Pakistan in their defense.
Ali Haider Habib, spokesperson of Justice Project Pakistan, added, “To be imprisoned in a foreign land surrounded by people who do not speak your language or share your culture is a harrowing experience. Imagine living through that during a worldwide pandemic. The repatriation of these prisoners shows the Pakistani government’s renewed commitment to safeguard the rights of overseas Pakistanis. Last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan requested Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to release Pakistanis imprisoned in the Kingdom on grounds of compassion, leading to the latter promising the release of 2,107 Pakistanis. The promise is yet to be fulfilled.”