While around 8,000 Pakistanis are currently behind bars overseas, with most of them in the jails of Saudi Arabia, followed by the UAE, India, Malaysia and Iran, there is a need to send lawyers to the Pakistani embassies in these countries to provide legal assistance to them. This was highlighted at a dialogue on Pakistani citizens imprisoned overseas’ organised by the Pakistan Fisher folk Forum (PFF) in collaboration with Lawyers Congress (LC) at a hotel on Saturday. Being imprisoned in another country is like being buried alive, said Lawyers Congress president Zulfiqar Ali Jehangir at the event. He said: Ironically, India and Pakistan has a judicial commission in place but when the judges visit each other’s countries to meet the prisoners they don’t do much other than see how they are doing. About the Pakistanis imprisoned abroad, he said around 2,800 of them were behind bars in Saudi Arabia on charges of human trafficking, narcotics or because of overstaying and visa issues. Next in line is the UAE where 1,900 of our nationals were imprisoned, followed by India, Malaysia, Iran, etc. There are some 500 Pakistanis locked up in India where it is most difficult to follow up cases due to our political situation with that country. Iran, too, has a limited scope of human rights, and you can’t do much there either, he said. There is a need to send lawyers to our embassies to help our people who have had the misfortune of getting arrested on foreign soil, he added. Supreme Bar Council Secretary Asad Manzoor Butt lamented that Pakistani embassies set up with our tax money had been failing Pakistanis abroad on many counts and those unfortunate enough to be in jail in another country were the worst hit. Actually, we have laws that can help them, we just lack the will to help them, he said. Human rights activist and law teacher Abira Ashfaq said that when she was practicing law in the United States around the time of 9/11, she saw many Pakistanis being locked up for little things as a result of the Patriot Act for registering and profiling of foreigners, especially those from Muslim countries, there. According to her, involving law students could help such cases if the embassies couldn’t help. Executive director of Pakistan Institute of Labor and Education Research (Piler) Zulfiqar Shah said that sadly whereas others who were in jails abroad might have been involved in some kind of a violation, the fishermen arrested at seas were not criminals. They are just victims of the two countries that don’t see eye to eye. We need institutional mechanisms to help them within the legal framework, he said. Small fishing boats According to Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum chairman Mohammad Ali Shah, when Pakistan issues a fishing licence to a deep sea trawler from China and if that accidentally violates Indian waters, it is informed about its offence and allowed to turn back. Similarly, if a Korean or a Philippine boat carrying a licence to fish from India finds itself in Pakistani waters, we are also lenient towards it. But that, unfortunately, is not the case with poor fishermen of both countries who are captured and locked up. This is even against UN Convention on Law of the Seas’ Article 73, which states that fishermen anywhere in the world are not to be punished if they unknowingly violate another country’s border at sea, he said. Since both India and Pakistan were in the same boat regarding this fishermen issue, they could work out a compromise where small fishing boats be allowed to share the resources of each others’ waters. They could also issue special ID cards or licences for the fishermen of both countries so that they could fish within the 50 nautical miles of each others’ territories. Mai Bhaagi and other families Also present at the event was Mai Bhaagi, whose four family members, all fishermen, were arrested at sea by the Indian Coast Guard some 17 years ago. She lately received word from India that one of the four had died. Though the men were all fishermen who had unknowingly crossed over to Indian waters, they have been kept behind bars on charges of smuggling. All were sentenced to life imprisonment, which after an amendment in Indian law is no longer 14 years, but for as long as a prisoner is alive. No less tragic was the story of Shumaila Yousuf who despite being on dialysis travelled from Hyderabad to Karachi only to share her family’s ordeal with the media. I haven’t seen my father for three years now, she said. Three years ago, Shumaila, accompanied by her parents was going to India via Khokhrapar to attend a relative’s wedding in India when the customs officer on the other side demanded from her father Mohammad Yousuf that he give him 20,000 of the 30,000 Indian rupees he was carrying with him. When her father refused, the customs officer made a false case against him of entering India carrying counterfeit Indian currency. He is still in jail somewhere in India. My father ran a small paper recycling business. With him stuck in India, my uncle has had to take over the work but he suffers from arthritis and has difficulty moving around. My mother remains depressed all the time, too. I am myself on dialysis, the teenager shared with Dawn. In fact I travelled today only to tell you all my family’s ordeal. I have to return by this evening to undergo a dialysis, she added. Seated not far from Shumaila were Ibrahim and Hajra of Ibrahim Hyderi, who have been waiting for their son, Rasheed, who would turn 16 this year. Rasheed was on board the fishing boat Al-Ali on March 17, 2014, when the Indian Coast Guards boat followed them into Pakistani territory. There were seven men on the boat including Rasheed. Six of them jumped out and swam towards the shore before escaping. He was the only one left behind and taken away by the Indian authorities.