Islamabad: After languishing for 22 long years in a Pakistani jail, Sarabjit Singh would soon be a free man walking back home to India as his death sentence has been commuted to life imprisonment, reports said Tuesday.
Sarabjeet could be released next week after the completion of all the legal formalities, reports said. The Pakistani Law Ministry has asked the Interior Ministry to take steps to "immediately" release Sarabjit as he had already served his sentence.
The release orders were given by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari in a move that seems to reciprocate the recent release of Pakistani virologist Khalil Chishti by India.
Chishti, who was convicted of involvement in the murder of a man in Ajmer in 1992, was recently freed on bail by India's Supreme Court. The court had announced this clemency during the religious visit of Zardari to India.
Appreciating Pakistan's gesture, Indian External Affairs Minister SM Krishna conveyed his thanks to Zardari for commuting Sarabjit's death sentence to life imprisonment.
The 49-year-old Sarabjit, convicted and sentenced to death for alleged involvement in a string of bombings in Punjab in 1990 that killed 14 people, has maintained his innocence and said that his was a case of "mistaken identity".
Sarabjeet has so far filed five clemency appeals. The fifth appeal that was filed by him last month included a document with the signatures of 100,000 Indians. Also, attached were two letters addressed to Mr. Zardari by Delhi's Jama Masjid Shahi Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari and Syed Muhammad Yamin Hashmi, the caretaker of the shrine of Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti.
"Singh should be freed on humanitarian grounds, which will not only help in promoting goodwill between the two neighbours but will also result in promoting communal harmony among Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims of India," the imam wrote in the letter.
Sarabjit Singh, who was convicted in 1991 under Pakistan's Army Act, has been in Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore for last 22 years.
Though Sarabjit was set to be hanged in 2008, his execution was delayed indefinitely after former PM Yousuf Raza Gilani intervened.
His family has said he wandered across the border in an inebriated condition and was arrested by Pakistani authorities.
Sarabjeet's sister Dalbeer Singh Kaur expressed immense happiness over the news of her brother's pardon, saying that it was a victory for the entire nation.
An overwhelmed Dalbir thanked Pakistani President Zardari saying, “It is a relieving news for me from Pakistan... every Indian would always remember this act of kindness of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari who ordered to commute the death sentence of my brother”.
Tears welled up in her eyes as she said that she was expecting her brother to cross over to India in a couple of days.
Dalbir Kaur had been spearheading the ‘free Sarabjeet’ campaign since last two decades and played a significant role in bringing the case to limelight.
Reacting to the news, Pakistani human rights activist Ansar Burney, who too had been campaigning for his release, said, "I think its great news for India, Pakistan and the family of Sarabjit. I would like to congratulate and I would also like to thank the President of Pakistan Mr Zardari.
"...It will create some more love, some more affection. It will be very good for the peace process between the two countries and the region. So its very good news. I'm very happy today that he will be with his family soon."
Zardari's pardon gesture comes just a day after the key engineer of 26/11 Mumbai attacks, Abu Jundal was nabbed in India.
The timing of Sarabjeet's pardon is sure to raise many eyebrows, given that Pakistan in past had pressurised Saudi not to hand over Jundal to India.
With PTI inputs
First Published: Tuesday, June 26, 2012, 19:10