Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sarabjeet/ Surjeet - What Went Wrong?

It's the kind of cock-up that could have sent Indo-Pak relations deeper into the abyss. Two days ago, I was reasonably sure that news of Sarabjeet Singh's supposed release was too good to be true.

For one, there was the timing. Indian officials had just arrested a man who could destroy the cover of the ISI and Hafeez Saeed in the 26/11 case. Why would Pakistan respond kindly? Some commentators suggested this was perhaps an attempt to distract from the arrest - by showing a kind side.

But even if Islamabad was trying to distract attention from Abu Jindal's arrest, why would it pick a man whom the Supreme Court had convicted for deadly bombings and sentenced to death? It simply didn't add up.

So let's look at the facts
During the 19:00 bulletin on Headlines Today, Faratullah Babar, official spokesman for the Presidential office of Pakistan speaks with anchor Padmaja Joshi.

About 19 seconds into the conversation, Babar says "Yes, I can confirm that Surjeet (he pronounces it Sir - as in Knighthood) Singh's death sentence *has* been commuted to life imprisonment..."

Here, you have a mispronounced 'Surjeet', which we can forgive Babar for. However, it's the *has* that adds to the confusion. Surjeet Singh's death sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment more than 20 years ago. Sarabjeet, though, was still on death row and therefore, still a hot-button topic in Indo-Pak relations.

Surely an official spokesman would know the difference between "has been" and "had been" commuted. With Babar saying "has been" no one suspected he was referring to someone whose death sentence was commuted more than two decades ago. But this is just step one of the cock-up.

Babar spends roughly 40 seconds explaining that since Surjeet (again, he pronounces it Sir-jeet, not Soor-jeet) has completed 20 years in jail - a life term - he would be released shortly.

At the 1:03 mark, Padamaja Joshi does the right thing. She re-confirms. "Sir," she asks, "Essentially we can break the news right now that Sarabjeet will be released?". To this, Babar responds: "[inaudible]...Sarabjeet (not Sirjeet) will be released...".

Here's the sequence again:
You have a mispronounced name.
You have a statement indicating the commutation of the death sentence "has" recently happened.
You have a request for confirmation of the prisoner's name and that his death sentence has indeed been commuted and he will be released.
You have confirmation of the same from an official spokesman.

Who do you blame here? Certainly not Headlines Today. When asked to confirm, Babar clearly says Sarabjeet. Nowhere in his conversation does he indicate this was a two-decade old commutation that had now come to light. It would be reasonable for Headlines Today to assume that the 'Sirjeet' he referred to earlier was simply a mispronounced Sarabjeet, not a mispronounced 'Soorjeet'.

What added to suspicions and confusion - I was among those bamboozled and angry - was it then took 5 hours for Pakistani authorities to clarify their mistake.

This is a terribly regrettable error. Sarabjeet's family had its heart broken. Surjeet's family has been reunited. I feel elated for the latter, crushed for former. And, sadly, we have to leave this case where it currently stands until the wheels start turning in Islamabad and Rawalpindi again.

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