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December 18, 2018

No Pakistani left behind


December 18, 2018

In 2000, Zulfiqar Ali migrated from Pakistan in the pursuit of a better life. That dream quickly turned into a nightmare. He spent over 13 years on death row in Indonesia on false drug charges. In August 2016, he came close to being wrongfully executed by firing squad. Luckily, the then PM, Nawaz Sharif, and the Foreign Office intervened and he was spared.

In January 2018, during his visit to Pakistan, Indonesian President Joko Widodo stated he would look into Zulfiqar’s case on humanitarian grounds. Despite being reminded repeatedly by the civil society, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) failed to make forceful representations on his behalf.

Zulfiqar never came back home. In 2018, he passed away in an ICU from stage four liver cancer. He was still a prisoner, and was buried in Indonesia.

In the hope of a brighter future, thousands of Pakistanis move abroad. This labour force provides an invaluable support to our economy. In 2017 alone, Pakistan received $19.3bn in much needed remittances.

But these labourers are at risk of being entrapped and forcibly engaged in narcotics smuggling by some Overseas Employment Promoters (OEPs) or people operating as them. OEPs are monitored and regulated by the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis. Yet the sheer number of migrant workers on death row points to a major lapse in regulation. A large number of Pakistani migrant workers on death row for narcotics offences have been drugged, tortured, kidnapped or held under duress, and are forced to ingest drug capsules before boarding their flight. They are instructed to handover these capsules to an unidentified individual once they reach their destination. But as soon as they reach their destination, they are apprehended.

At the mercy of local courts and without access to lawyers, impartial translators, or consular assistance from Pakistani diplomatic missions, they are subjected to human rights abuses, forced to undergo criminal trials that fall considerably short of international due process standards and executed by host governments.

The government of Pakistan is obligated under international and domestic law to protect the fundamental rights of its citizens imprisoned around the world. But it has consistently failed to do so. The duty to protect its citizens is all the greater when the criminal justice system that the citizens are caught in fails to uphold the standards of fair trials and due processes.

Pakistan does not have a uniform consular protection policy. Rather, in 2010, under the directions of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, MoFA devised guidelines, that were formulated with the objective of securing the release and repatriation of Pakistani nationals arrested and serving sentences abroad.

However, in March 2017 the Lahore High Court observed that these guidelines do not amount to a policy and directed MoFA to devise a ‘policy for consular access’. A comparative analysis of similar policies of other countries concluded that the MoFA guidelines lack in providing adequate support and protection. For example, the Australian, American, British, and Dutch policies require that consular officers visit the individuals within 24 hours of their arrest. For most, it is compulsory for the consular officer to visit the detainee at least once a year.

In Pakistani missions, visitation of prisoners abroad is not applied uniformly and, in some cases, completely abandoned. Additionally, these guidelines are not readily disseminated or made available for the public. Thus, there is a lack of understanding among officials and no awareness for prisoners about their rights. Furthermore, the inherent vagueness of procedure and categorisations such as “deserving Pakistanis” provide room for bureaucratic inaction.

Implementing a uniform consular policy would ensure that every Pakistani mission abroad fulfils its duty of ensuring the safety and well-being of imprisoned Pakistanis through regular prison visits, proper recordkeeping and the provision of effective legal, administrative, and financial assistance.

Prisoner Transfer Agreements (PTA) can also prove crucial in providing relief to Pakistanis imprisoned abroad. The Transfer of Offenders Ordinance, 2002 allows Pakistan to devise PTAs and provides guidelines to be followed.

Pakistan had PTAs with eight countries but in 2015 all were suspended. Since then, thousands of Pakistanis have been arrested and many executed. It is imperative that PTAs be signed with countries with a significant number of Pakistanis.

Zulfiqar’s life was spared the first time after a government intervention due to immense pressure from the media and civil society, but we lost him – all because there is no policy, therefore no obligation.

Similar to Zulfiqar, there are an estimated 11,000 Pakistani migrants languishing in jails, the majority of them in the GCC, where they are often denied their most basic rights. Since 2014, close to 90 have been executed in Saudi Arabia alone.

On International Migrants Day, we must remember them and their plight.

The writer is a freelance contributor.