India, Pakistan to release hundreds of prisoners next month in goodwill measure
NEW DELHI – India and Pakistan agreed Tuesday to release hundreds of fishermen and other civilians in each other’s jails – a goodwill measure that comes as part of a peace process between the two countries.Both sides also agreed to provide better consular access to prisoners, notify each other of arrests and join forces to stamp out terrorism, according to a joint statement. The announcements came after two-day talks between home secretaries from both sides.These decisions came ahead of a meeting between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in New York on Sept. 14 on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session.But mistrust still runs deep between the nuclear-armed neighbors, and those prisoners actually convicted of espionage – including an Indian sentenced to death in Pakistan – are not covered by the deal.Two Indian diplomats met the Indian prisoner facing death in Pakistan, Sarabjit Singh, on Tuesday at Kot Lakhpat jail in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore. It was the first time Indian diplomats have met him since his sentence was announced in 1991.The Indian Foreign Ministry said he appeared to be in good health and “has been left with provisions of items of daily necessity.” It also said he gave the diplomats letters for his wife and sister.Singh’s death sentence was recently upheld by Pakistan’s highest court, sparking protests in India. Singh’s family insists he strayed accidentally into Pakistani territory in August 1990 while farming his land, which lies near the border.In past decades, hundreds of Pakistanis and Indians have been caught on the wrong side of the border and imprisoned on suspicion of spying. Nearly all say they accidentally wandered across the poorly marked frontier.The statement said both sides “agreed to release on Sept. 12 all fishermen and civilian prisoners who have completed their sentence and whose nationality status has been confirmed.”The talks are part of a peace process that began in January 2004 with a series of official contacts aimed at easing tensions between the South Asian neighbors, who have fought three wars since the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947 by departing British colonialists.Both sides reiterated their commitment to “combat terrorism and re-emphasized the need for effective steps for the complete elimination of this menace,” the statement said.V.K. Duggal, India’s home secretary, said the talks were “held in a friendly and cordial atmosphere and the deliberations were frank and forthright.”The Pakistani Interior Secretary Syed Kamal Shah said progress had been made on various issues and he hoped the “process of composite dialogue will continue further.”Pakistan released 589 Indians last year, and India released 182 Pakistanis as tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors eased, according to Pakistani officials.Indian officials say Pakistan still holds 371 Indian fishermen and 74 other civilian prisoners. Pakistan says 379 Pakistanis are in Indian jails.Vail – Colorado
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